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Belleville Rendezvous

Belleville Rendezvous

By Ben Nicholson • December 1st, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Les Armateurs

Original release: August 29th, 2003
Running time: 80 minutes

Country of origin: France
Original language: French with English subtitles

Writer and director: Sylvain Chomet

Cast: Michèle Caucheteux, Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin

Belleville Rendezvous

I’ve always had an affinity for animation, from my adoration of 80’s children’s cartoons on TV (Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles) as a child to a love of Disney – in particular Aladdin – through to the fact that I still consider Watership Down the only film that has ever really scared me, and still does. My love of animation takes in all kinds, from Wallace & Gromit to Studio Ghibli via Pixar, and it’s also great to see slightly more leftfield animated films getting some recognition: Mary & Max, My Dog Tulip, The Fantastic Mr Fox, Rango et al.

One such film from the last decade is Slyvain Chomet’s delightful and dark debut feature – Les Triplettes de Belleville, or in the UK, Belleville Rendezvous. The plot is a little odd; an old lady, Madame Souza, struggling to get her young grandson to engage with life buys him a bicycle and he falls completely in love with it. Cut to a number of years later and the boy, now grown and known only as ‘Champion’ is training hard, with the help of his grandmother, to enter the Tour de France. Having entered, Champion is kidnapped by two mysterious men and taken to the city of Belleville where he’s used as sport for the local mafia where they bet on which cyclist will win a race. Madame Souza follows Champion and along with her loyal pooch Bruno and three old mad music hall singers, The Triplets of Belleville, attempts to locate and rescue him.

Belleville Rendezvous

Although animation is often considered to be a genre aimed at children, this isn’t really a film for kids. The central story of a betting cabal full of big-nosed mafiosos and their henchmen kidnapping cyclists and forcing them, on pain of death, to ride until they are exhausted is a pretty dark one; when one of the cyclists collapses, he’s put down like a by a grotesque bookmaker. When Madame Souza and company finally locate Champion and attempt a rescue, things do not go down without violence and throughout the film there are dark and disturbing images – a dead pig rigged to ride a bicycle in a butcher’s window (a dark and grotesque foreshadowing of the events to come), a diet of frogs killed by hand grenade by the Triplets or the gaunt exhausted riders as they slip away from the peloton at Le Tour.

What offsets these glimpses of darkness though is the truly wonderful charm of the film and it’s this blend that’s seen me come back to it on countless occasions. To start with, it feels incredibly French and has been compared by many to the kind of work being done by compatriot Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who directed Amelie, that many people enjoy for the charm of his stories and eccentric characters. This is exactly what this film has in spades.

From the 20’s style animation on the TV set that opens the film with a look at the Triplets of Belleville back in their heyday, to the loving attempts by Madame Souza Belleville Rendezvousto reach out to Champion through watching TV together and getting him a puppy (the aforementioned Bruno).

When I watch this film I have a smile on my face from the first minute to the last, enjoying Bruno’s hatred of trains and overwhelming need to bark at them every time they pass Madame Souza’s lopsided little house; the old lady’s corrective footwear; the novel methods of massage that she employs to aid Champion after his training sessions and the sight of her trundling along after him in said sessions keeping rhythm with her whistle. The moment she sits amid the rubbish in the big dark city (having pedalled across the open water to get there) and starts to play a tune on a broken bicycle wheel to then be joined by the Triplets is only surpassed by the first time we get to see them on stage together.

Some people may find the film a little too odd; the blend of quirky and black comedy is perfect but would admittedly not be to everyone’s tastes and although there is hardly a word of dialogue spoken throughout (and some of this is in English), it still feels very much like a foreign film. However, you shouldn’t let that put you off; it’s very humorous – even in its darkest hour – and Mrs Souza and the Triplets are well worth your time. In short, Belleville Rendezvous is a delight.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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