Music as Language in Les Triplettes de Belleville
Not many animated films of the past twenty years possess the uniquely strange staying power of Les Triplettes de Belleville. Perhaps this holds true in my memory because as a 15-year-old youth, The Triplets of Belleville came at a time when mainstream film animation was beginning to deviate from the Disney norms of my childhood. Outside of Richard Linklater’s 2001 work, Waking Life, and the inventive work of Studio Ghibli, most popular animation in film in the early 2000s seemed squarely for children. If you wanted something more subversive, you could look to programs of old such as Betty Boop or Felix the Cat, or you could rely on the acid-trip television programming of Rocko’s Modern Life, The Ren & Stimpy Show, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and others, but you wouldn’t find anything like that on the big screen. And then came The Triplets of Belleville.
Stripped down, and without spoiling too much of the fun, The Triplets of Belleville centers around a grandmother and grandson as they prepare and race in the Tour de France. When the grandson, Champion, is kidnapped by the French mafia during the race, the grandmother, Madam Souza, seeks to rescue him with her companion hound, Bruno, by her side. In her travels, no challenge is too great, but her efforts are eventually matched when she is aided by the titular triplets, whom she meets when arriving in Belleville to save Champion.
The film opens with the Triplets of Belleville, a singing variety act, while still in their youth, performing to a throng of fans. The animation instantly hearkens to cartoons of yore, as their attendees are mostly caricatures of married couples, with overbearing, obese women dragging their petite husbands to the theater. This over-exaggeration instantly sets the mood for the spirit of the film, a marriage of old and young animation and storytelling. As the triplets’ show ends, we pan out to see that our two leads, Madam Souza and a young Champion, are watching the show on their television, revealing that this film may be named after the triplets, but the story doesn’t necessarily belong to them. This air of mystery (who are these characters? Will we see the triplets again?) helps to draw you into this fictional version of the Paris countryside and the greater context of the film’s eccentricities.
One of the most fun aspects of the film, and a method by which it communicates universality, is that the triplets perform in a city that is a strange amalgamation of Paris, New York, Montreal, and Quebec City. Belleville acts both as a love letter and a criticism of cities that are dedicated to the love of the performing arts. Many of its inhabitants are overtly slovenly, doubling down on the film’s earlier critique between product and consumer in the opening scene. The criticism continues when Madam Souza eventually meets the, now in old age, triplets, and we see that the city of Belleville doesn’t even truly support the artists who bring in the crowds that keep the city alive. The triplets (Rose, Violette, and Blanche) live together in a modest one-bedroom apartment, where they share one bed, and live off a meager diet of frogs that they fish for themselves. But, despite their circumstances, they seem genuinely happy. They come across Madam Souza when she is down on her luck, out of money with no place to stay, and drumming on a broken bicycle wheel. The triplets live for music, and they form a bond in Madam Souza’s drumming, joining her for an impromptu musical collaboration before inviting her to stay with them during her search.
It’s through this music that The Triplets of Belleville does most of its communication. There are moments in the film where characters will speak (sometimes in French, sometimes in English), but by and large, the film utilizes sounds, gestures, expressions, and music to illustrate character intents and emotions. The film is mostly devoid of dialogue, and it’s all the better for it. Watching The Triplets of Belleville 19 years ago meant something completely different to me when I was 14, but when watching it again now, it was the music that transported me back to that first viewing. The bits of dialogue are still funny (especially when any of the triplets speak), but the choice to communicate in other ways helped build that sensory memory that can usually only be achieved with a sense of smell. The lack of distinct language also helps to put one at ease while sitting with these characters. Madam Souza is a fish out of water in Belleville, as are we, so we learn as she learns through the language of the film, mostly through body language and the universal language of music.
Looking back at this moment in film history through the lens of music, it’s a shame to remember that the 76th Academy Awards had to honor “Into the West” from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King while The Triplets of Belleville’s “Belleville Rendez-vous” took an L. “Into the West” is an undeniably, powerfully emotional song that The Lord of the Rings trilogy had been building towards for all three films, and it deservedly won that Oscar, but if there was ever a year to hand out a second award, I feel this might have been one of the better opportunities. The Triplets of Belleville also lost out in their only other nomination, Best Animated Feature, to the Pixar powerhouse Finding Nemo. Not to say that The Triplets of Belleville didn’t win awards in other arenas, nor do I wish to intimate that awards are the be all, end all of filmmaking, but it is surprising to look back and realize that for a teenager living in the Midwest in the early 2000s, I was lucky to have known about The Triplets of Belleville at all. Thank goodness for that Academy recognition, no matter how little.
Whether this look back inspires you to watch Les Triplettes de Belleville for the first time, or if it’s made you want to take your own stroll down memory lane, I do hope Belleville treats you well. It had been far too long since I had taken the trip myself, and now I can’t imagine waiting as long to pay Rose, Violette, and Blanche another visit. I also can’t imagine ever fully getting “Belleville Rendez-vous” out of my head ever again… Worth it.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.