Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Shhhhhh! We’re celebrating movies with little to no dialogue.
The Triplets Of Belleville (2003)
Even in muted sepia tones, the first few minutes of writer-director Sylvain Chomet’s first feature, The Triplets Of Belleville, knock the viewer out while setting the stage for the surreal animated masterpiece to follow. In what’s presented as an archival clip from the heyday of the title characters, the three music-hall singers perform their signature song, “Belleville Rendez-vous,” alongside recognizable superstar entertainers like Josephine Baker and Fred Astaire. But this is a vaudevillian bizarro world where Astaire will get eaten by his own tap shoes, guitarist Django Reinhardt can play the strings with his feet, and the Triplets will soon have to wrap up their act to make way for a giant screaming baby storming the stage.
After that explosive intro, the viewer can settle in to the still-strange existence of young Champion, his devoted grandmother, and their tremendously overweight dog, Bruno, who live in a tall, skinny house in France. Champion, whose true love is cycling, has grotesquely overdeveloped calves, which his grandmother has to massage with egg beaters every night; she then feeds him dinner while truing his bike wheel atop an Eiffel Tower statue for the next day’s ride. The scene is simultaneously somber and sweet, showing these three characters in their small but not discontented life. Their intimate silence is only broken by a viewing of the Triplets on TV or an accordion record on the phonograph, the device powered by Champion’s riding. But Grandma and Champion don’t need any dialogue to express how much their lives are firmly intertwined.
The Triplets Of Belleville eventually takes a turn for the sinister. While competing in the Tour de France, Champion and two other riders are kidnapped by a pair of rectangular thugs for the wine mafia, then smuggled away on a ship across the ocean. Quick-thinking Grandma follows the ship in a paddleboat all the way to Belleville; we can tell by the overweight Statue Of Liberty that greets her arrival that Belleville is a savage caricature of America, where nearly everyone is overwhelmed by girth. Grandma and Bruno soon are aided in their search by the famous Triplets Of Belleville, now elderly and subsisting on an unsavory diet of frog. But they remain just as musical, crafting songs with a vacuum cleaner, a refrigerator rack, and an old newspaper, Grandma even joining in on her trusty bicycle wheel.
There’s so much to take in visually and musically that the lack of dialogue makes perfect sense. Mere words would just get overwhelmed in Belleville’s symphony of bizarre, stirring imagery: the overarching view of Belleville, all skyscrapers dotted with giant wine bottles, dwarfing Grandma and Champion’s simpler life; the evil wine mafia’s rodent-like mechanic, a possible swipe at Disney (along with a Mickey-shaped turd in a toilet); the over-accommodating waiter who literally bends over backwards. There’s the music, too—including that infectious opening number, which scored the film one of its two Oscar nominations. (The other was for Best Animated Feature, which it lost to Pixar’s Finding Nemo.)
The film makes a final turn into caper territory, complete with thrilling climax. But the real magic of Triplets Of Belleville is the emotion that propels the whole adventure: Grandma’s silent but resolute determination to persevere until her Champion is found. As she breathlessly chases the freighter across the tumultuous sea, a whale emerges, giving the paddleboat a quick lift before it disappears. It’s just one of Belleville’s myriad memorable images, but the message is clear: Beauty erupts where you least expect it, whether on a tiny cramped stage featuring old vaudevillians making music, or in a tilted old house with a devoted grandma and her beloved but exhausted bicyclist grandson, who she still carries up the winding stairs to bed.