Is there a way for foreign movies to avoid the curse of subtitles? Not with mime but with noise. The spirits of Mickey Mouse and Jacques Tati hover over the French-Belgian-Canadian animation The Triplets of Belleville and the Hungarian whatsit Hukkle; each is a splendidly eccentric first feature that triumphantly tosses aside dialogue in favor of a richly expressive audio mix.
Finding Nemo and Looney Tunes: Back in Action notwithstanding, the year’s most ingenious and original animated feature is the gloriously retro The Triplets of Belleville, written and directed by erstwhile comic-book artist Sylvain Chomet. The last Hollywood animation this good was The Iron Giant, and Triplets is similarly steeped in two-dimensional cartoon-ness. The movie opens with a brilliantly executed pastiche of an early-’30s Fleischer Brothers Talkertoon—complete with scratches. A stretch-and-squeeze horde of funny-looking swells descends on an all-star variety show. Caricatured celebs performing for the rhythmically recycled audience include Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker, and Fred Astaire (devoured by one of his tap shoes). The stars of the show, however, are the eponymous triplets whose infectious scatting provides an insinuatingly manic and vaguely scatological backdrop.
Chomet leaves the spectator wanting more. The cartoon disintegrates into static, as watched on television by old Madame Souza and her morose, sharp-nosed grandson Champion, sometime during the de Gaulle era. (Chomet himself was born in 1963.) Madame Souza, Champion, and their obnoxiously barking dog, Bruno, live in an isolated house that’s been knocked askew by a railroad trestle. For their world, Triplets switches to a proudly sketchy storybook style. The spidery lines and spindly figures suggest Ronald Searle. The characters might be stuffed with kapok. The palette is subdued and autumnal—goldenrod and ochre with a burnt sienna wash.
Virtually devoid of dialogue, Triplets is a narrative contraption that concerns a narrative contraption—as well as an animated cartoon that never stops thinking about motion. Madame Souza’s every step is emphasized by a clunky orthopedic shoe. Champion becomes a fanatical bicyclist. Subjected by his grandmother to a hilariously intense regimen, he never stops riding his bike—even once he’s kidnapped by two mysterious men in black and taken away in an oversize freighter. The boat sits on the Hokusai Sea like a rusty flame as the unstoppable Madame Souza and Bruno paddle after it, dodging storms and whales, to arrive in the alt-New York (cum Quebec) of Belleville.
The bovine Statue of Liberty in the harbor presages an entire city of big-bottomed fatties. (Chomet’s characters are typically based on a few visual ideas. The bad guys are menacingly modular rectangular blocks, a maître d’ is designed to bend over backward, and a timorous mechanic wears fake mouse ears.) Living below the alt-Brooklyn Bridge, Madame Souza is discovered by the triplets, ancient but still scatting. The crones bring her back to their sordid tenement—kids will love the details—for a meal of mucky amphibian stew. Champion, meanwhile, is being held captive in a subterranean nightclub where gangsters gamble on virtual bicycle races—as in an old movie, the background scenery is furnished by primitive rear-screen projection. Triplets ends with a chase within a chase—the liberated captives still peddling away—and a requisite serving of smash and crash.
All animation is obsessive; Triplets also manages to seem fresh. It’s nasty but droll, cheerfully grotesque, full of non sequiturs as well as deadpan repetitions, never cute and the opposite of precious. In the grand finale, the old ladies infiltrate the joint as a noise orchestra, performing their hits on newspaper, refrigerator shelves, and vacuum cleaner. You have to see it.
Hukkle—written and directed by 29-year-old György Pálfi—takes its onomatopoeic title (pronounced HOOK-leh), as well as its framing motif, from the sound of a wrinkly old codger’s hiccup. There are plenty of other noises—all manner of baas, snores, cowbells, and birdcalls—but virtually no dialogue.
Deranging a venerable Hungarian tradition of “village sociology,” Pálfi employs a bizarrely associative montage to fashion a portrait of a traditional peasant community—just a midsummer Sunday on Mars. The perspective keeps shifting from bird’s- to worm’s-eye view. At one point there’s a shock transition to an editing room; at another we’re granted X-ray vision to study a fisherman’s insides. Palfi has a juvenile fondness for yucky close-ups and barnyard humor. There’s a comical match cut from two boccie balls to a pig’s distended testicles.
This cartoonish animal kingdom suggests a screwball version of Bruno Dumont’s Humanité. Existence is an unfathomable kozmic joke, but some sort of life cycle is in spin: A grub-eating mole, introduced in subterranean close-up, bangs into a hoe, inadvertently surfaces, and gets tossed to the dog. Everyone is constantly preparing or eating food and the many meals shown are always a matter of women feeding men. Did that sweet old lady put something in the paprikas? Is that what killed the cat? Throughout, a longhaired cop is investigating—possibly the corpse at the bottom of the lake.
Hukkle, which screened earlier this year in “New Directors/New Films” and subsequently at BAM’s Voice series, is filled with such mysteries. As curious townsfolk shuffle off to church, a fake earthquake rocks the village, including a freshly dug grave. Does time run backward? The cop types up his report, looks at a batch of photos, and realizes something. So might we, once we hear the sardonic song performed by a bevy of village maidens at the wedding that ends the movie.
David Ng talks with Triplets of Belleville writer-director Sylvain Chomet