Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Feb 02, 2004 1:51 pm 
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Sublime vileness

This stranger-than-usual animation is an ornate, intriguing piece of work, with a unique visual style somewhat resembling certain English cartoonists’ (Ronald Searle’s, for example) but very remote indeed from either Disney or South Park or Japanese anime. There are times as you watch, especially at first, before the repetition and the overkill of intricate detail begin to pall, when the originality and visual richness clearly approach the sublime. The combination of computer and traditional hand animation methods, carried out at such a level of complexity that the film required five years to complete, is an unquestionable triumph. But you may very well be put off when you realize that overall Sylvain Chomet’s first full-length animated film has no discernible point or message; that its central figures are mournful, ugly, and unfriendly; that there is little plot, virtually no dialogue, and that the void left thereby is filled with a great deal of annoying noise and repulsive imagery. The twittering visual machinery of wiggling, yapping, howling dogs, of awkward, caricatured creatures of all sorts endlessly in motion, turns into a series of nightmarish repetitions that can easily become as off-putting as they are wearying.

I wanted to like this movie. Its originality and adeptness as a work of animation remain impressive. It gives new meaning to the very word “animation”: every scene is a study of the nature and arts of motion. There are observations whose keenness is unique. As cultural observation and commentary it certainly provides much material for debate. The vision of France a half century ago is quaint and intriguing. But the mournfulness, the sadomasochistic undertones, and the meanness build over time; and when the triplets dined on plates and pots full of still squirming frogs, my sympathies checked out. The undercurrents of nastiness both in the personalities of the principals and the depiction of American culture do not leave an endearing impression.

The plot is simple and can be seen as little more than a rough framework on which to hang the intricate doodlings, the recreation of a grotesque nostalgic vision of postwar France, and the endless experiments with the very nature of animation, which are perhaps ultimately the film’s real point. An old French granny, Madame Souza, whose walk clatters from a big orthopedic shoe, lives in a rickety house somewhere in Fifties Paris or its environs. She has in her care a large dog, Bruno, and a large, lean, boy, Champion, her orphaned grandson, who dreams of racing in the Tour de France. She herself ruthlessly supervises his training, which is shown in meticulous detail and includes, at home, the use of a variety of Rube Goldberg contraptions to feed and condition him after he has returned from his exhausting day on the roads. Champion grows up with grotesquely hypertrophied leg muscles and tiny upper body, and competes as planned in the Tour de France. But during the race he’s kidnapped by sinister box-shaped gangsters and taken to the city of Belleville, over in the new world. Madame de Souza and Bruno set out in pursuit, crossing the sea in a boat, complete with dramatic storm. Once in Belleville, a blatantly anti-American vision of New York perhaps including elements of Montreal (the inhabitants and even the Statue of Liberty are grossly fat), old granny makes the acquaintance of a trio of eccentric and fleshy former women vaudeville singers (whom we’ve seen do their scat-singing act on an ancient TV broadcast) and these “Triplettes de Belleville” help Madame recapture Champion from the kidnappers. One writer has suggested the plot is an allegory of how Hollywood steals the best European talents and sucks them dry. If so, the theft is foiled this time.

No movie has ever shown the curious way big cumbersome dogs can manage to get up on a bed with somebody already lying in it. This trick is shown several times. It remains one of the keenest pieces of observation I’ve ever seen in an animation. The intricacy of detail of Champion’s training process is hard to get out of one’s head; the depiction of a grueling, relentless exercise routine is unforgettable. Others will like moments like the great storm at sea, though the effects used there seemed to me out of sync with the more linear style of the rest. A momentary TV appearance of what is obviously Glenn Gould intricately nattering away at some Bach keyboard fugue, no doubt beamed to France from the Canadian Broadcasting System, provided one of many delicious little period details during the film’s first half. There are also cameos squeezed in by Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker, and Fred Astaire (who is eaten up by one of his tap shoes). Likewise the visions of period Tour de France training crews and roadside fans are priceless. It’s difficult to do justice to such an intricate effort. The devil and the wonder are both in the details. Despite the lack of dialogue as a central element and its replacement by incidental noise (as well as occasional jaunty jazz), a feature that links The Triplets with the comic films of Jacques Tati, there really is a lot of quick French at times, and I have the feeling that in omitting subtitles, the filmmakers or distributors have robbed Anglophone viewers of some of the richest details; that there’s French stuff here we can never hope to grasp. For the devotee, this is definitely one for repeated viewings. There’s a lot to take in -- if you’ve got the stomach for it. Once may be enough for many, but anybody interested in animation needs that once. Not suitable for young children or anyone easily weirded out.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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