In my review of WALL-E (2008), I praised the film for being a reminder of the power and relevance of silent cinema, taking it as a hint to audiences that snappy dialogue is not the be-all and end-all in modern movie-making. But there is an earlier, perhaps more distinctive example of the virtues of silent film, an animation which focuses not on robots packing waste in outer space, but an obese dog and an elderly woman with an orthopaedic shoe. Welcome to the strange and quirky world of Belleville Rendezvous.
Belleville Rendezvous (known elsewhere as Les Triplettes de Belleville) is equal parts a Tati-esque surrealist comedy, a parody of French and American life, an offbeat crime drama and a charming story about a very odd family. It is also almost completely silent; with the exception of the eponymous triplets, who sing three times, and the flash-forward to an elderly Champion at the end, there is no dialogue whatsoever.
The film owes a massive debt to Jacques Tati?s Monsieur Hulot?s Holiday, in its style of comedy, use of sound effects and the way in which the circumstances escalate as more characters get introduced. Although there is next-to-no dialogue, the film utilises the sounds of ordinary objects to express the changing moods of the characters. Sylvain Chomet takes something as simple as two notes being blown on a whistle and manages to get three or four different emotions out of them in the space of two scenes. Scenes such as this are clear proof of Aldous Huxley?s dictum that ?after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.?
Purely on a design level, Belleville Rendezvous is captivating. Surrealism has produced its fair share of extraordinary designers ? just look at David Lynch?s artwork if you don?t believe me. But Chomet?s designs and caricatures are beautiful in their oddness. You grin at the very sight of them, and wonder why no-one else had thought of drawing mafia henchmen with raised, square shoulders. Even when his subject is at its most stereotypical (apparently, all Americans are fat), the characters feel like individual works rather than lazy mass production.
Because silent films cannot wow us with sparkling one-liners or shock us with Sexy Beast levels of swearing, they rely primarily on physical gesture and humour to make us bond with the characters. And Belleville Rendezvous has ample quantities of both. Chomet draws his characters with emotion deeply ingrained into their faces, and their distorted physicality instantly tells us all we need to know about them. Take the fawning, sycophantic waiter, who quite literally bends over backwards to assist his customers and never stops smiling even when he is bawling at the henchmen?s feet.
The humour in Belleville Rendezvous is distinctly childlike. There is an old-fashioned innocence to the jokes and sound effects which are more likely to provoke a polite chuckle than an adolescent snigger. Some of the jokes are very obvious ? using a grenade to catch frogs for instance ? but others are ingenious and clever because they could easily be attempted in real life. In fact, some of them already have ? the scene of the triplets playing a song with nothing but a newspaper, a bike wheel, a vacuum cleaner and the shelves of a fridge came about through the experiments of the film?s composer, Benoît Charest.
The acclaimed Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth once described his film Local Hero as ?Brigadoon meets Apocalypse Now?, pitting the mythical, fictitious Scotland against the thread of American imperialism. And like the Scotland in Local Hero, you get the sense that the France of Belleville Rendezvous only exists in someone?s imaginations. Aside from vague references to Charles de Gaulle and the odd dated poster, it feels instead like a collection of nostalgic mementos which blend together to form an idealistic vision of the past.
Unlike the ultramodern CG techniques of Pixar, or the highly-advanced stop-motion of Nick Park or Henry Selick, Chomet?s animation has a pastel, painterly quality to the drawings which create a real sense of intimacy between artist and audience. The music is closer to Fred Astaire than John Williams, and the whole film has a dreamlike quality which puts the viewer in a languid frame of mind. The dog?s dream sequences, which are shot in black-and-white, are some of the weirdest moments in the film (and that?s saying a lot). The sense of abstraction in these scenes are reminiscent of Salvador Dali?s work, while shooting them in black-and-white is a possible reference to A Matter of Life and Death (in one interpretation, all the heaven sequences take place in David Niven?s head).
On top of all this, Belleville Rendezvous is a very good alternative family film. There are certain moments which are questionable even at PG level ? the early scene of a topless black woman dancing in a skirt made of bananas will lead many (myself included) to cringe. But the film makes an admirable effort in bringing out the darker side of these circumstances, whether it?s the loneliness of Champion before he gets his first bike, or the crazed bookie with a handgun, who slightly resembles Laurence Oliver as in Marathon Man. The final chase sequence between the cyclists and the stretched Citroen 2CVs is inventive and intense, with a great combination of tension and humour throughout.
Despite all these plus points, there are a couple of problems with Belleville Rendezvous. Although there is very little troubling content in individual scenes, the first few minutes of the film are very slow, and young children may be bored before Champion first gets on his bike. Certainly if children are more used to films with frequent explosions and shouted dialogue, they will struggle to stay with it even as the visual gags build.
A bigger problem, from a more adult point of view, is the extent to which the film?s appeal relies on its quirkiness and charm rather than anything more substantial. Quirkiness and charm are all well and good, but unless they are anchored by deeper themes the film can quickly become irritating and self-indulgent. While the film never tips over into the territory occupied by Little Miss Sunshine or Elizabethtown, there are individual moments in which Chomet?s weirdness becomes overbearing. The film is only 78 minutes long, and that?s probably a good thing.
In spite of these difficulties, Belleville Rendezvous is still a sure-fire oddball hit. Its distinctive animation style and retro sensibility are immediately appealing to anyone without a heart of steel, and older viewers will delight in picking up on all the references to Tati, Dali and the like. Whether Chomet can continue this impressive work on The Illusionist remains unclear, but seven years on his feature-length debut remains a quirky, charming gem.