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Maybe it’s silly to pine for old-fashioned hand-drawn animation in this era of whiz-bang Pixar spectaculars. After all, those whiz-bang Pixar spectaculars usually hit the spot with their winning combination of top-notch comedy writing and hi-tech know-how. But however enjoyable Finding Nemo or Toy Story 2 might be, what’s the point of dreaming up a fantastical world if you’re going to settle for plain ol’ verisimilitude?
The Triplets of Belleville stands completely apart from the usual peaks of animated fare. The film opens with a grainy, hand-drawn black-and-white image of a vintage-looking theater. Three women, the cooing Belleville triplets, are onstage performing a jazzy number, stretching, bending, swaying toward the microphone like a bunch of Steamboat Willies. The short set piece bursts with visual flourishes—in one sequence, fatter and fatter women squeeze out from the same limo until they threaten to swamp the screen with their remarkable girth.
After a minute or two, the action pulls back and enters the ground floor of a modest home. The nightclub romp, it turns out, was just a TV program being watched by a little boy—all that meticulous detail lavished on a mere world within a world. The film then skips forward in time, and the boy, who still lives with his lumpy, train-chasing dog, Bruno, and his small, squarish, clubfooted grandmother, has transformed into a professional cyclist named, um, Champion. Or at least his gray jacket says “Champion”—The Triplets of Belleville has virtually no dialogue, so most plot points are more suggested than spelled out.
Writer-director Sylvain Chomet, who honed his craft in comic books as well as animated films, isn’t afraid to go for spare and allusive rather than explicit. But his greatest strength is caricature: Champion is all calves, nose, and Adam’s apple, bound together by a long stick of a torso. In one sweet, funny scene, the grandmother gives him a deep body massage after a day’s workout, lifting the tension from his muscles with an egg beater, then a lawn mower, and, finally, a vacuum cleaner.
Champion soon gets to competing in the Tour de France, with Bruno and Grandmother trundling behind in a support van. Chomet’s rendering of the race beautifully displays his penchant for exaggeration: When the cyclists get tired, they don’t just pant and slump; they drop to the ground in a lump, wheeze, and start melting. All the while, the crowd teems with fleshy gawkers, who drink and carouse on the side of the road. As the race presses on, Champion and two of his fellow cyclists are lifted from the course by shade-wearing heavies whose rectangular backs look like pianos.
The black-suited toughs, it seems, are in the employ of the French mafia, a red-nosed, winemaking crew keen to enslave the cyclists and force them to race in perpetuity while gamblers wager on the outcome. Grandmother and Bruno labor to pick up Champion’s scent, ultimately tracking him to an enormous ocean liner bound for Belleville, a metropolis fronted by an engorged Lady Liberty.
The Triplets of Belleville looks less like a recent animated film than a children’s book: Rather than soft-edged polygons, Chomet favors strong lines filled in with a palette of mostly blues and grays. Backgrounds look quickly sketched in, with watercolor blues and grays spilling just outside the black outlines that demarcate walls and streets. Things are more substantial in the foreground: Bruno, for one, with his triangular face and jaundiced eyes, dominates the screen with his worried, overtired droopiness.
Bruno, in fact, is the most human of the film’s characters. There are even canine dream sequences—in one, Bruno sits on a handcar, pumping his way past a crowd of people who bark loudly at him—that offer more opportunities for insight into the dog’s inner life than we ever get for Champion’s. He’s more the film’s quarry than its protagonist, it’s true, but the perpetually stupefied Champion doesn’t seem to have grown from the jolly little kid we see in the film’s opening moments. That’s but a quibble, however: When a movie has this much flair and verve, who needs realism?
Secret Things opens on a tight shot of a naked woman masturbating. She writhes, then writhes some more, her body slowly contorting against a solid black background. Then the camera pulls back, revealing a smoky room full of men sitting and watching the show as they sip their drinks. Nathalie (Coralie Revel), though, is clearly performing more for herself than for the club’s clientele. Well, for herself and for Sandrine (Sabrina Seyvecou), a bartender as fetching as she is abashed: In voice-over, Sandrine admits that it gets her excited to watch Nathalie dance, but, aw shucks, she just doesn’t have the guts to get onstage herself.
That character-defining sense of repression lasts for about 30 seconds. When the owner of the club fires Nathalie and Sandrine for refusing to turn tricks, the twosome head back to Nathalie’s apartment to sip champagne and chat about the vagaries of love. “I’m tired of being alone, but I don’t want a guy on my back,” says Nathalie. And why would she? Secret Things lives in that movie universe in which every woman, deep down, wants to bite the apple that turns her into a really slutty lesbian. Sandrine starts with touching herself in front of Nathalie, then moves on to subway exhibitionism and down-and-dirty public canoodling. “Now that you can make yourself come, you’re free,” Nathalie tells her.
Sure, an old-fashioned sexual awakening is nice, but at this point, what have our heroines done about the inequities women face in the modern-day workplace? Wait, come again? Yup, writer-director Jean-Claude Brisseau’s transition from skin flick to skin–flick–meets–In the Company of Men–style screed is just that awkward. As soon as Sandrine becomes sexually free, she uses her feminine wiles on Mr. Delacroix (Roger Mirmont), an executive at a company that makes unknown French things. The real target, though, is Christophe (Fabrice Deville), the handsome son of the company’s CEO who, rumor has it, has driven women to suicide with his philandering.
For all of Secret Things’ feminist posturing—including, bizarrely, occasional appearances by a silent, owl-brandishing Minerva—Brisseau can’t cloak what he really thinks: that it’s perfectly plausible for women to have total sexual dominion over men unless the men are really hot. When the hunky Christophe enters their lives, Nathalie and Sandrine drop their defenses, swoon, and fight each other over a smirky egomaniac with some pretty discernible flaws. Even if you’re willing to forgive Christophe his taste for the occasional bout of sibling incest, what about his penchant for setting money on fire or his need to ask rhetorical questions such as “Would that make me at least as cruel as God?” Nathalie and Sandrine couldn’t care less: “Jeez, he was gorgeous,” the latter coos in voice-over.
Despite the suggestion of its opening shot, Secret Things’ explicitness—almost always of the girl-on-girl or girl-on-girl-on-boy-on-girl varieties—is meant only for the most leering of audiences. That Brisseau tries to cloak his softcore fantasy in a message of empowerment makes the film all the more appalling. If only his mother had washed his dirty little mind out with soap a long, long time ago. CP