”Les Triplettes de Belleville,” the first feature film by Sylvan Chomet, is a universe of sheer impossibility, where size, proportion and balance are ruled by the whims of his perverse pen and peculiar imagination.
Although that imagination has evidently been fed by sources as various as Betty Boop, Jacques Tati and European comic books, its products are too strange to be assimilated into any known tradition. ”Les Triplettes de Belleville” is by turns sweet and sinister, insouciant and grotesque, invitingly funny and forbiddingly dark. It may also be one of the best, a tour de force of ink-washed, crosshatched mischief and unlikely sublimity.
The film’s two lines of intelligible dialogue have been dubbed into English since it was shown, to rapturous applause, at the Cannes Film Festival. Its sensibility, however, remains irreducibly French.
The overture is a black-and-white spectacle: naughty, exuberant and a little creepy. It evokes Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire (eaten by his own shoes) and introduces the Triplettess of the title, a trio of gangly, cloche-wearing scat singers. (They sing the movie’s theme song, a swinging piece of nonsense likely to stick in your head for hours after you leave the theatre.)
These celebrities turn out to be images flickering on a battered television set that belongs to Madame Souza, an old woman with thick glasses and orthopedic shoes who lives in a rickety building with her orphaned grandson, Champion. He is a gloomy, tubby boy who smiles only when his grandmother presents him with a tricycle, a gift that foreshadows his eventual transformation into a gaunt, sad-eyed Tour de France bicyclist with hypertrophied calves and thighs.
The story is too bizarre and wonderful to summarize, but it leads Madame Souza to Belleville, a Manhattan-like dream city populated by obese hamburger eaters, cretinous Boy Scouts, and a diminutive red-nosed French mafia chieftain. Belleville (not to be confused with the Paris neighborhood of the same name) is also the home of the Triplettes, now ancient, who subsist entirely on frogs and frog by-products and who make infectious music out of household appliances and carefully preserved newspapers.
”Les Triplettes” is a similar collage of the found and the invented. Its style evokes a postwar France making its stubborn, eccentric way into the modern world, a nation of chain-smoking truck drivers and accordion-squeezing pop singers, presided over by Charles de Gaulle, whose beaked, chinless profile is mirrored in many of the film’s faces, including Champion’s. Mr. Chomet, who dedicated the film to his parents, clearly feels some nostalgia for the mixture of worldliness and parochialism that defined the bygone France. And it is possible to detect, in his view of the fleshy Bellevilleans, a whiff of Gallic disdain for the gigantism of American culture.
It is likely that before too long, bits and pieces of ”Les Triplettes” will find their way into the cartoon lexicon.