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25 December, 2003

Review: Belleville Rendez-vous (2003)

Belleville Rendez-vous was BBC2's main early-evening film for christmas day; a French/Belgian/Canadian/British animation with very little dialogue, and that mostly in unsubtitled French.  I mightn't have watched it if it hadn't been recommended by Al, who saw it at The Dukes cinema a couple of weeks ago.

It was indeed a compelling film, very well executed. The animation style seemed unusual, having the look of 'traditional' hand-drawn cel animation yet with complex layering, shadows and shifting viewpoints I don't expect from that technique; an evolution of the genre, I suppose. The rendering of water and fire were clearly computer-generated, a mismatch I don't particularly like - one suspends disbelief to enter a 'cartoon' world, and photo-realistic fluids are a distraction.
I noticed from the credits that the film had been constructed by animation studios in France, Belgium and Latvia, each taking a major section of the film. Having read that, I do recall a number of distinct styles, but mainly in terms of setting and lighting; the central characters provided continuity and the overall result was clearly the product of a single imagination, French director and comic-strip artist Sylvain Chomet.

The biggest difference between this and the ubiquitous American/Japanese style of 'cel' (digital, really) animation was the amount of caricature and grotesquery, closer to the political cartoons of a newspaper than a typical animated feature film. Many aspects were massively exaggerated for emphasis. For example, professional cyclists were stick-thin, with bulging thighs and calfs; the French mafia bodyguards were rectilinear monoliths on tiny legs, their shoulders well above their heads, who drove long, low sports cars based heavily on stereotypically French 2CVs; ships had their superstructures and decks high in the air on extremely tall hulls tapering to almost nothing at the waterline; and scenes in a thinly-disguised New York were populated by huge, grossly obese people, including the Statue of Liberty herself.

Although fairly endearing, there was very little cuteness, particularly in the details; elderly women had liver spots, a group of frogs included one deformed, presumably by pollution (which made the fact that the frogs were subsequently caught and eaten even less pleasant), an establishing shot of a dingy tenement building included a blocked toilet, and virtually every character had inhumanly distorted facial features. No-one was physically attractive, most were elderly, infirm, or both. The result was somewhat similar to early Terry Gilliam films, which I found striking in their depiction of squalor; there was something slightly disturbing about the overall effect.

I haven't commented on the plot, partly because I was primarily drawn to the visual and technical aspects and partly because it's a simple, slow-paced story, often wildly implausible, but strongly character-led and easily sustained by an essential warmth. It's a mistake to categorise this as a film for adults or for children; I don't think it's aimed at either, but would appeal to both.

Incidentally, 'Belleville Rendez-Vous' is the title used in the UK, but it's distributed in other territories under its original title, 'Les Triplettes de Belleville'.

NP: Bass Communion, 'Bass Communion II'.

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