Sylvain Chomet’s imaginatively surreal Belleville Rendez-vous is a drizzly, humorous and wholly original affair. Combining the Tour de France with the Mafia, and a charming personal journey situated within a glowing fictional megacity; the writer/director’s animated film reminds us of the qualities cinema can conceive.
Initially released twelve years ago, Belleville offers the world of animation something obscure and different to the likes of Disney or Pixar; more in tune with the poetic openness of Studio Ghibli creations. The narrative presents a boy named Champion, who lives with his elderly guardian Madame Souza and her lazily loyal mutt Bruno; as he competes in the grueling Tour de France. What ensues is the kidnapping of this skeletal rider by cuboid-shouldered mafioso’s, who take him and two other zombified cyclists to the city of Belleville. Souza and Bruno’s unyielding sense of love drives them in chase of the chain-smoking villains, which provides the film with its most entertainingly serene visual sequence. Orchestrated against the grandeur of Mozart, the two characters pedalo across the mighty ocean tailing the ship that holds the grandson prisoner. It’s easy to forget how emotional animation can be, this particular example in fact contains similarities to Raymond Briggs’ classic; The Snowman.
Portrayed as a pseudo-silent movie, Belleville’s art direction and visual design are colossal factors of its overall success. Due to the minimal dialogue throughout this adventure, the focus is drawn more towards the occasionally expressionistic character appearances, 1930s music and beguiling locations. Chomet fires substantial grotesqueries into the frame, this includes most pedestrian characters carrying a casual obesity; alongside competition cyclists mirroring Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later starving rage-creatures. These elements are unique and impressively executed by the team of animators, who supposedly spent five years getting this project to the screen. The character of Champion is one of animation’s great inventions, his Herculean-sized lower body and oddly vampiric image promotes a certain uneasiness about him; what’s his story? Do we sympathize with him?
Chomet’s vision could be seen as a slight parody of French national stereotypes; being a Frenchman himself he employs a comical edge to this personal work, with many examples available. Take the Tour de France for instance, the director’s onscreen sportsmen are portrayed with a lethargic, ghoulish energy that appears to destroy any enjoyment from this famous competition. One glorious scene features an elasticated, theatrical waiter serving the Mafia boss and his black-clad henchmen; dressed with a ravenous grin and camp impatience. Madame Souza stumbles across the acclaimed Triplets of Belleville on her desperate travels; whom provide plenty more of the film’s national niggling, look out for the ‘frogging’ scene and how the demented trio come up with memorable ways to serve this amphibious delicacy.
As the bespectacled grandmother continues her search for Champion, her run-in with the Triplets aids her sluggish progress; resulting in a delightfully dark yet underwhelming climax. Chomet’s melancholic film emboldens the notion of mortality and even how animated characters are ultimately, just like us. Belleville Rendez-vous is an incomparable phenomenon, there are moments of cold longing but also very adult-orientated ingredients chucked in for good measure; its also a strangely comforting movie to experience.
The DVD package contains numerous Bonus Features, involving a ‘Making-of Documentary’; interviews with the director and art director, plus a standard trailer reel. The most useful and fascinating of these is the insight from Chomet, who explains the look of Belleville (“a compilation of Paris, New York City and Montreal”) and the touching relatability of the character Champion.