May 14, 2004

The Triplets of Belleville: pure nonsense or French anti-Americanism?

The DVD of The Triplets of Belleville is out already (though the film is still in the theaters), and it arrived in the mail yesterday. So many of the DVDs I order sit on the coffee table unwatched and eventually get shelved, perhaps never to be watched. I'm sure my DVD bookcase has at least 30 that I've never even put in the machine. But The Triplets of Belleville made it straight into the machine and got watched the evening of its arrival. It opens with a sequence that was shockingly crudely animated, but then we see that this is a cartoon on a TV that within the beautifully drawn world of the characters of the rest of the movie. The elegant detail of the line and the subtle color make a profound impression when they replace the bluntly drawn black and white TV cartoon that begins the film. So is the movie basically a dreamworld fantasy of pure nonsense or is it an expression of French anti-Americanism? I have the impression that's a debate people have about the movie. You might gravitate toward the first position if you enjoyed the movie and the second if you don't want to bother to see it or if you saw it and it put you in a bad mood for one reason or another. I find those two positions too boring to take, so let me offer some other things to think about.

1. This is basically a silent movie. There is no sound that functions as narrative. If you turned off the sound entirely, you would only miss the music and the sound effects. The music, like the drawings, are distinctive, and in no way "nonsense," unless all music is nonsense. It doesn't make sense to think of music (excluding lyrics) as nonsense. So the visual and sonic beauty of the film stand apart from anything you might have to say about the narrative. The narrative might be just something to engage you to look at drawings and listen to music for a sustained stretch of time.

2. The boy was a rather horrifying character, who seemed to exist only to ride a bicycle. He was a depressed lump until he got his first tricycle, and the old woman driving him on was perhaps helping him achieve his own heartfelt goal. Even though she seemed cruel, she was a coach. It was a grim life, and the boy's face is nothing but grim, throughout his life, but he was worse off when kidnapped and exploited for his fabulous bicycling ability. The life of the French countryside may be hard, but if you leave it and go to the big city, it will be much worse. Better to go back home and live your limited little life, because the world of commerce is the worst exploitation of all. In this, the film reminds me of the Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio.

3. The three old women were not the only triplets. The French Mafia characters were three-in-one entities. And the core family group--grandmother, boy, and dog--are a set of three. So, consider three-ness. If three-ness is central, the trinity must be contemplated. Consider the possibility of religious allegory.

4. Think about machines. The bicycle is the central machine. (You can have a bicycle triple feature--celebrating three-ness--if you watch this movie and Breaking Away and The Bicycle Thief.) But the movie has a thing about machines. A clock machine determines when the dog is fed, the trains and subways drive right by the window, music is made from a refrigerator and a vacuum cleaner, a weird movie-bicycle-gambling-device is a place of imprisonment and a device for escape, and so forth. The interest in machines (especially since this is a silent movie) reminds me of Chaplin, who not only made Modern Times, which included a big evil work machine that entraps the hero, but also had the uplifting speech at the end of The Great Dictator be mostly about overcoming, not fascism, but machines. If you've read Chaplin's Autobiography, you know he was oddly overconcerned about machines.

5. Think about fire. The grandmother, alone in Belleville, sits under a bridge and lights a little fire, which causes the Triplets to appear and begin to sing. Food is acquired by using an incendiary device, a hand grenade thrown into the water, producing a harvest of frogs. And in the end, the gambling theater is exploded and set afire.

6. Is Belleville Manhattan? It's an island full of skyscrapers with the Statue of Liberty out in front, but the villainous men in suits are quite French. There is much guzzling of red wine, and the buildings are made in part of large wine bottles. There is an America diner that served big hamburgers to very fat people too. I think Belleville is a conglomeration of all things that are feared about cities and overgrown commerce. Belleville is globalization, which mixes Americans with the French, and the solution to the problem is isolationism--as the boy and his grandmother return to the little house to spend the rest of their lives soaking up the joys of poverty outside of the reach of evil commerce and big city excitement.


Anonymous said...

I know it's been awhile since you posted this, and all of your points are very interesting to think about(for example, the groups of three, I don't know how I missed that :)), but why does it have to either have a point or be nonsense? What's wrong with a story for the sake of the story? Not everything has to have meaning, but that still doesn't make it meaningless. :)

BAM said...

Forgive me for intruding upon this thread, but I believe this film falls under the category of 'poetic-realism'. It is neither nonsense, nor does it portray a moral or message. It is purely emotional - though it does follow the Hollywood classical style in its narrative structure. Poetic-realism is a mode of cinema developed by the French in the 1920's and 30's.

Schorsch said...

Posted for Posterity: It's a common misconception that the boy is a good cyclist. He's picked up by the sweep wagon, indicating that he can't even finish the race. That his grandmother drives the wagon tells us he's often in last place.