Ode to Joie

Whistle-Blower: Madame Souza and her dog, Bruno, in The Triplets of Belleville.Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

The Triplets of Belleville, an animated feature from 40-year-old French filmmaker and comic-book artist Sylvain Chomet, is the most joyously cinematic movie I’ve seen this year. Chomet’s astonishing imagination conjures images you could swear you’ve seen in your dreams. It’s impossible to watch this movie without gasping at its graphics, and yet we’re so drawn into Chomet’s way of seeing that, after a while, his genius erases the distinction between animation and live action. However you choose to categorize this movie, it’s startlingly, undeniably alive.

Perhaps a better way to put it would be this: Chomet’s film, even though it’s animated, fulfills the visionary potential of the live-action medium. Watching it, you can’t help wondering why “regular” movies don’t have the same brio and daring. The great thing about The Triplets of Belleville, which is mostly set in the fifties, is that it looks like a movie made by people who would actually pay to see it themselves. As one jaw-dropping sequence follows another, you can practically hear the filmmakers’ whoops of pride and delight.

Madame Souza, staunch and club-footed, but with big, curious eyes, lives with her melancholy grandson, Champion, on a hillside outside Paris. To cheer him up, she gives him a tricycle and, as he grows older, coaches him, tooting on a whistle while he pedals up and down the town’s impossibly steep streets, his ham-hock-size thighs pumping away. (I have rarely seen a movie that conveyed such a kinesthetic sense of how gravity pulls on the flesh.) One day, Champion qualifies for the Tour de France, and Chomet shows us the race in all its twisty, vertiginous glory, focusing on the cheering, hectoring bystanders. The sequence is both a tribute to the celebrated bicycle race and a send-up of its clamor. In addition to everything else, Chomet is a great comic artist. Throughout the movie (which is virtually without dialogue), he is almost preternaturally attuned to the satirical possibilities offered up by his countrymen.

“As one jaw-dropping sequence follows another, you can practically hear the filmmakers’ whoops of pride and delight.”

At a swank restaurant, for example, he gives us a snooty headwaiter so obsequious before the rich and powerful that his curlicue limbs seem to melt in their presence. There’s nothing affectionate, no sigh of c’est la vie, in such moments. Chomet has an ornery disrespect for phoniness, and perhaps that’s why the heroes of his movie are outcasts like Madame Souza or her big, slobbery, faithful dog, Bruno, or the lady Triplets—faded thirties music-hall singers who live together in filigreed squalor and rally to Grandma’s cause when Champion is kidnapped during the Tour by a pair of gangsters, whose silhouettes resemble coffins. That image is typical: Silliness bleeds into nightmarishness throughout the film. Although no one would ever accuse The Triplets of Belleville of being for the kiddies, any child with eyes in his head will probably be exhilarated by it.

When Champion is first kidnapped, Madame Souza and Bruno track him to an ocean liner, which resembles a sky-high knife blade slicing through the seas, and rent a paddleboat in pursuit. (Their storm-tossed journey, scored to Mozart’s C-minor Mass, is as exciting as anything in Master and Commander.) Everyone ends up in the port of Belleville, a fictional megalopolis Chomet based on his skewed impressions of Paris, Montreal, and New York. (In a dig at American appetites, he crowds the streets with people so bulbously fat they seem like rubber toys.) It is here that the Triplets enlist in the cause. To call these biddies eccentric would be a disservice. They exist on a diet of frogs from a nearby swamp, and we see them dine in excruciating detail. When they perform their act before nightclub audiences, their instruments are a rustling newspaper, a refrigerator, and a vacuum cleaner. And it all sounds great, too.

Chomet is kin to these crones: He puts together a crazy quilt of sights and sounds, and it comes out jazzy and supple and improvisatory. He draws on everything, high and low: not just Mozart but Django Reinhardt, Fred Astaire and hoochie-coochie, Josephine Baker, Samuel Beckett, classic Disney and the films of Czech animator Karel Zeman, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Nick Park’s Claymation classics, and early animation pioneers like Winsor McCay—for starters. He pays homage to Jacques Tati, whose movie Jour de Fête, with its spare, angular wit (and its bicycling), is this film’s guiding spirit. And yet Chomet’s rich fantasia doesn’t really look or sound like anything else. Although an army of technicians and collaborators labored over it for five years, the movie has the distinctiveness of a single, unified vision of life—an unhinged splendor. When was the last time you saw a movie and came out feeling that one viewing was not nearly enough to take it all in?

Ron Howard’s first western, The Missing, doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre. Set in turn-of-the-century New Mexico, it’s a fairly standard piece of sagebrush hooey about a father, Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones), who returns, unannounced and unwelcome, to his daughter, Maggie (Cate Blanchett), almost 30 years after abandoning her and her mother to live with Indians. Maggie has two daughters, little Dot (Jenna Boyd) and teenage Lilly (Evan Rachel Wood), and when the eldest is kidnapped by Apaches to be sold in Mexico, Maggie overcomes her hatred of her father in order to engage him in the pursuit.

The chase itself, across parched, picturesque terrain, is brutal but unexciting, and the leader of the kidnappers, played by Eric Schweig, is a dark, pockmarked goblin right out of the bad old days of cowboys-and-Indians flicks. Lots of greasepaint in that war paint. Some of the other performers, though, especially Jones and Blanchett and Wood, boost the movie’s authenticity quotient. As Lilly, who moves rapidly from whiner to revenger, Wood confirms the promise she showed in Thirteen. Blanchett, as she already demonstrated this year in Veronica Guerin, is capable of being extraordinary amid ordinariness. She gives us a self-sufficient woman who is split in two: a devout Christian who has long abhorred Indians, and a capable healer who cannot heal her own emotional wounds. Jones’s character, weathered as much by life as by the elements, wearing his stringy hair below his shoulders, is convincingly native. You can believe this man left his family because he felt born into the wrong tribe. Now if only he had picked the right movie . . .

Jim Sheridan’s In America, which he wrote with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, is very loosely based on the Irish director’s experiences coming to New York with his family as a young man. At its best, the movie has a supernal glow that you can practically warm your hands by. Sheridan’s astonishment at this promised land is seen through the eyes of the daughters in the film, Christy and Ariel (the marvelous sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger), who experience contemporary Manhattan as a garden of unearthly delights. Their parents, Johnny and Sarah (well played by Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton), still mourning the accidental death of their young son, have lost their faith and are searching for a new one. A hard-luck actor, Johnny risks the rent money on the family’s tenement digs by trying to win a doll for his daughters at a carnival; he’s good-hearted but foundering, and Sarah is the one who must keep the family together.

Sheridan missteps when he introduces Mateo (played by Amistad’s Djimon Hounsou), who lives in the tenement and spends much of his time screaming to himself. He becomes a kind of storybook godfather to the two girls and a savior for their parents, but his presence is too furiously deranged for the fragile texture of this movie. He disrupts its lyricism. Understated works a lot better than overstated in In America. Fortunately, there are more than enough moments when the heavy-handedness gives way to the sheer bliss of ordinary magic.

Ode to Joie