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The Triplets of Belleville
by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, The Triplets of Belleville is an 80-minute French cartoon directed by Sylvain Chomet. I think you can take the kids to this one, even though the wistfully satirical touches, the deliberate retro, and the various intertextual tributes might slip by unnoticed. It helps, though, to know something about French village life, poverty, the lottery-winning promise of the Tour de France, horseracing, and what the French think of American capitalism to get the edge of the story.

But even without all that, it's a breathless, beautiful, wacky and weird experience. A lonely, chubby boy lives with his devoted grandmother after his parents' death in a French village that soon becomes the decayed outskirts of a sprawling city, where the metro rattles the rickety two-story structure in which the boy and his grandmother live.

In her constant efforts to cheer the child up, the grandmother brings home the homeliest puppy imaginable-and it is this character whose complex and neurotic subjectivity focalizes much of the narrative. An early traumatic experience with a toy train set (his tail gets run over) triggers a fort-da repetition compulsion that sends the dog galloping to the window to bark furiously each time the subway zooms past his house. Later he will have dreams about the train track where he rides around in circles searching for his master. One day the grandmother discovers the boy's love of bicycles and in her ambition and determination to elevate him to the real hero status he occupies in her heart, cobbles together low-tech techniques to train him for the Tour de France.

Or is this whole thing just a dream, an elaborate wish-fulfillment fantasy shared perhaps between the grandmother and her grandson, a sort of French equivalent of hoop dreams for the working or lumpen class?

Anyway, during one of the tours, we learn there's a Mafia-like kidnapping ring that swoops up champion cyclists, packs them into an ocean liner, and hustles them off to the huge metropolis of Belleville (think maybe New York?) where, under the guise of a horsemeat production plant, gangsters gather to place bets on the cyclists pumping stationary bikes while staring at a screen of moving scenery. Ah, the corruptions of cinéma! (The metaphor the movie uses is race horses, but I thought more about dog fighting or, less metaphorically, boxing) Grandma, her dog, and her faithful farmer-driver set off on a quest in search of the boy, and the movie chronicles their adventures along the way. This is how they encounter the triplets, former vaudeville singers turned impoverished tenement dwellers who dine on frogs prepared in all manner of ways and harvested by a very unusual method.

You see how strange this story is, a story that reaches its climax in a mad car chase through the city, just like in real movies of a similar genre. Add to this the fact that there are almost no words and that the whole story is dense with cinematic, musical, cultural and political allusions, all of them very French, and you wonder how such a thing could so captivate and enchant international audiences, especially in the US. Well, the cartoon is exquisite. Just incredibly gorgeous. And the characters, though odd to our American sensibilities, vibrate with humanity, longing, and an old-fashioned uncynical belief in and defense of life in its pre-commodified pre-consumer capitalist forms. There is lots of nostalgia there.

And the dog. We may be in awe of the intrepid devoted loving and fierce grandmother, but the one with whom we identify is Rover, buffeted as he is by his nightmares and appetites, aroused, finally, to his calling as a detective bloodhound by the ennobling goal of rescuing his master. Then, of course, there are the worldly triplets, weird sister guides through the underworld of the modern era.

Little, funny, odd folks, caught up in the sinister machinations of a frighteningly big heartless world and, with old-fashioned values, pluck, and a whole lot of heart, emerge hilariously triumphant. You'll love it.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.