This Week's Triple Belle

The Triplets of Belleville is just one of three offbeat films worth seeking out

click to enlarge STRANGE TRIPS: The Triplets of Belleville, oddball - music hall stars from the '30s, are among a gallery of - grotesques a clubfooted woman turns to when her - son-nee-grandson is kidnapped. - Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.
STRANGE TRIPS: The Triplets of Belleville, oddball music hall stars from the '30s, are among a gallery of grotesques a clubfooted woman turns to when her son-nee-grandson is kidnapped.

It's only after the gigantic woman manages to squeeze her bulk from the tiny toy car that we notice the dead man wedged between her mountainous buttocks. The man, who has apparently suffocated, has cartoon Xs for eyes, and the fat lady strolls on down the sidewalk, corpse in place, blissfully unaware that there's anything less than perfect with her world.It's not exactly the sort of comedic grace note you'd expect to find in a feature-length cartoon. But The Triplets of Belleville is anything but your average cartoon, and the moment is a thing of beauty, as hilarious as it is undeniably bizarre.

It doesn't make a lick of sense, of course, but anyone expecting sense or sensibility should probably resolve to stay far away from The Triplets of Belleville. This is the sort of film where even a scene that's supposed to be familiar — the obligatory car chase, for instance — is apt to be anything but what we'd expect. In Triplets' version of a high-speed chase, an enormous, bulletproof limo packed with thugs careens directly into the path of the world's cutest baby. Impact occurs, the infant is unscratched, the limousine is totaled.

French animator Sylvain Chomet's debut feature is unlike anything we've seen before, although its feel is timeless and its wildly imaginative story is barely a story at all. What we get here is a non-stop parade of odd, inexplicably amusing sights and sounds: a cat-and-mouse game involving a club-footed grandma, a dangerously obese canine, and a pencil-necked Tour de France cyclist with absurdly overdeveloped calves. The cyclist is kidnapped by rectangular mobsters and whisked away to a faux America that, despite its gigantic buildings and even more gigantic burgers, is still oddly, unmistakably French. Meanwhile, grandma and pooch, in hot pursuit, fall in with a gallery of grotesques that includes the titular triplets — batty grand dames given to lobbing hand grenades into frog ponds and feasting on the victims' corpses.

Triplets creates its own singular universe, a surreal, vaguely sinister but wholly delightful place not unlike the worlds created by Jeunet/Caro (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children) or Jacques Tati (Chomet's official "creative inspiration"). The movie's Tati-like dialogue mostly consists of grunts, mumbles and yelps; the plot is always secondary to a nonsensical anti-logic as mysterious as it is loony, and the hand-drawn animation does beautiful things that computers can only dream of.

The film's fanciful, storybook design comes across as charmingly dated, even deliberately artificial, owing as much to Rousseau and Jules Verne as it does to Marcel Carne and the French filmmaking style known as poetic realism. It all blends together beautifully, albeit in a strange, elliptical way that will probably sail right over the heads of toddlers weaned on the clean, emotionally satisfying cause-and-effect of Finding Nemo.

Incidentally, The Triplets of Belleville and Nemo are going head to head in this year's Oscar race for Best Animated Feature. While there's plenty to recommend both movies, we'd probably all be less than honest grown-ups if we didn't come clean and admit the pleasure in finally having a cartoon all to ourselves.

The Return of the King

The Triplets of Belleville isn't the only must-see French film in town this week. Rififi, one of the greatest film noirs ever produced in France or anywhere else, is being revived for a special, one-night-only screening to kick off Madstone Theaters' new Screen Savour wine-tasting series.

The prototype for just about every great heist movie from the '50s on, Rififi is a masterful blend of hard-boiled American noir and the more reflective French style known as poetic realism (an influence on Triplets too). Rififi is packed with beautiful losers, double-crossing stool pigeons, desperate junkies, seedy Montmarte nightclubs, bad girls in fur coats, and lots and lots of pistol-packing, fatalistic tough guys immaculately outfitted in dark suits and skinny ties. At one point, one of the gangsters enters a cabaret and is asked by the attendant if he'd like to check his hat. There's no need for a reply, or even an acknowledgment; these are guys who'd sooner be caught dead than appear in public without their hats.

The first half of Rififi follows a group of ex-cons as they join forces to plan the robbery of one of Paris' swankiest jewelry stores. The last half of the film is the account of what happens after the heist, as the thieves begin to implode when a rival gang tries to claim the loot for themselves. In between, we get the pivotal robbery sequence for which Rififi is so deservedly famous — a nerve-rackingly tense, 22-minute sequence conducted in almost total silence and in something very close to real time. The scene is depicted with such attention to detail and documentary-like precision, in fact, that some countries actually banned the film back in 1955 thinking it would prove overly instructive for would-be criminals.

The heist scene may look a bit quaint by today's pumped-up standards, but the sequence is still a model of virtuoso filmmaking, and Rififi has lost none of its power to thrill, charm and captivate. The film also looks better than ever, thanks to the beautifully restored, newly subtitled print that will be shown at Madstone's Screen Savour event on Feb. 12. Preceding the screening of Rififi, Weekly Planet wine columnist Taylor Eason and Wine Exchange sommelier Craig Dean will lead a tasting of pinot noirs (can't ever have enough of that noir), and tickets may be purchased for the entire Screen Savour event or just for the film.

Indigenous Is As Indigenous Does Four short films by indigenous filmmakers of Mexico will be presented on Saturday, Feb. 7, in a film festival considerably different than any you're likely to have seen before. The Chiapas Media Project's Autonomy, Globalization, Social Justice and the Zapatista Movement may not be a title that comes tripping off the tongue, but it might just turn out to be one of the more memorable film events in some time.

The short films, most of which are unapologetically political in nature and hover around a half-hour long, are in languages like Tzeltal and Tzotzil, but are all conveniently subtitled in English. Water and Autonomy looks at how communities in Chiapas are building their own water systems to combat the problem of limited access to potable water. We Speak Against Injustice is an account of the Zapatista caravan addressing the Mexican congress in March of 2002, and the paramilitary violence that subsequently erupted. Reclaiming Justice: Guerrero's Indigenous Community Police is the story of the many indigenous communities who, in 1995, established their own volunteer police force, despite aggressive opposition by corrupt authorities. Song of the Earth: Traditional Music from the Highlands of Chiapas looks at the significant role music plays in indigenous communities and examines the struggle to preserve a cultural heritage in the face of war and the allure of western pop culture.

The Autonomy, Globalization, Social Justice and the Zapatista Movement event takes place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and will be held at the Marti-Maceo Society, 1226 Seventh Ave. in Tampa's Ybor City. Admission is by donation and on a sliding scale, with all proceeds going to the Chiapas Media Project and its indigenous filmmakers. For more information contact Shari Feldman at 813-362-2000, [email protected]

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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