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Reviews: Belleville Rendez-vous
'..a film that catches your breath and makes you believe in magic again'.

After a year that has been full of major disappointments in the cinema Matrix Reloaded, Bad Boys 2, anything starring Ben Affleck, the risible ‘Core’ the smug ‘le divorce’, and possibly worse to come I hear, (Star Wars in particular) the only hope all year has been the Indies. Flower and Garnet for example, a small beautifully crafted Canadian feature, the quirky Neil LaBute helmed ‘The Shape of Things’, Whale Rider from New Zealand, La Comunidad from Spain, Laurel Canyon by Lisa Cholodenko. I find that in reviewing the year so far that three films stand out for me and all three, by some curious twist of fate turn out to be animated features. This hasn’t happened probably since I was five years old.

The Animatrix: Second Renaissance was everything that The Matrix Reloaded was not. Lucid, exciting, coherent and above all illuminating.
You need to see these series of animated stories to get the background to the story and you will find yourself puzzled as to why the actual live action film isn’t as exciting as Peter Chung’s Matriculated section for example, or Kid’s Story by Shinichiro Watanabe. Many hundreds of Japanese animators and computer graphics people worked on this and it is very advanced anime. Watch it before Part Three of the real action film comes out in November ’03.

Image from 'Beyond' perhaps the most spiritual seqment in the collection.

Spirited Away, produced by Yasuyoshi Tokuma, written by Havao Miyazaki, who also directed, is another Japanese animated film –well deserved of it’s Oscar this year. Completely different in style and approach to the Animatrix, it is a kid’s movie, but tells a dark, ghostly tale that is at once fantastic and thrilling to watch. The beasts and ghosts are very Japanese and that too makes it stands out. It’s bringing Japanese culture, it’s fears and folklore into our western realm and informs our world. It is also quite often hilarious as giant babies are turned into pink mice carried around by an enormous fly. Don’t take the kids, go yourself and just enjoy it on an adult level.

Now at last we have ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ and this is an astonishing work indeed.

An animated feature (a Belgian, French, Canadian collaboration) with virtually no dialogue and full eccentric characters such as the old ladies (The Triplets of Belleville) who use refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and newspapers for syncopation. No sex, no extreme violence, but totally captivating throughout full of the kind of eccentric ideas that made Junot's 'City Of Lost Children' or 'Delicatessen' so riveting.

Directed by Sylvain Chomet with the voices of Jean-Claude Donda, Michel Robin and Monica Viegas it is the most exhilarating work of art in animation in ten years.

Using two-dimensional film as well as CGI, the mix of images can be crude one minute and just extraordinarily stunning the next. It is dark, whimsical and often makes you laugh with pure astonishment. It is simply breathtaking, a work of genius.

The story is simple in essence. Champion is a young boy adopted by his grandmother (Madame De Souza) but is ever morose and hard to please. She buys him things but nothing makes him happy in their strange home on the outskirts of the City. She buys him a puppy, Bruno, but even that doesn’t work until she discovers he’s excited by the Tour de France and bicycles.

Time goes forward and the city has marched forward and engulfed them, the overhead railway swamping the house and tilting it sideways. The boy, Champ, has grown up and is a Tour De France rider, trained by a resolute Grandma with a lethal whistle. The Dog keeps it’s appointment with the trains, barking at everyone and Champ comes home exhausted every night to be massaged and pummelled with the aide of a vacuum cleaner and lawnmower by his devoted Grandma.

The dog Bruno, is a wonderful character in itself, so expressive, so well observed. Everything is in the details, Grandma's glasses that always slip, the shaking house that signals another train going by.
Ticking clocks, odd mechanical devices.

During the Tour De France, Champ is kidnapped along with two other riders by the dastardly French mafia. (The film is always true to detail, they are taken on the hillside of Mount Ventoux where sweeper vans often pick up distressed riders.) He is taken by ship to a City called Belleville, which would have been New York if the French had stuck it out there instead of selling it off (See Louisiana.)

The poignant moment when his Grandma and Bruno discover that Champ is on that ship is wonderful. She rents a pedalo and takes off after the ocean liner. The sight of Grandma and dog on the rolling ocean in the wake of the liner is just amazing –pure cinema. You almost want to cry. Madame de Souza silent determination is a lesson for us all.

This is a fantastic America, where everyone is grossly fat. To be fair, the French don’t come off well either with their wine soaked noses and strange physical shapes. The Citroen deux cheveau limos are a wonderful joke too. Everything about this film is lavish and enriching. When Grandma and Bruno arrive exhausted in Belleville, they have no idea where there Champ is, but they are befriended by The Belleville Triplets, the triplet singing and percussion act from the 1930’s (who introduced the film with their famous number when young.) They are now cranky old dears living in a tenement flat. The sight of one of the old ladies going fishing for frogs with explosives is just hysterical. The music they make, (now with Grandma in the act on bicycle wheel is amazing.)

Almost any frame is a work of art and it is always stunning to look at with small precise details that you would love to see again. The rhythms and timing make one forget there is virtually no dialogue in the 78 minutes of screentime. This is an astonishing work, a genuine labour of love that rewards in many ways. It is the most satisfying animation experience I can remember. This is a film that catches your breath and makes you believe in magic again.

Don’t wait for the DVD,or hope to see at 3am on some cable channel, try to see it now in a cinema in London or elsewhere. If you know the programmer of the local Art House in your city, get them to book it. Show ‘Belleville Rendezvous’ and they will come. Tell the local cycle club, there's one nights audience for a start.
*Showing in London this October 2003 Odeon Covent Garden - Shaftesbury Avenue.
© Sam North October 5th 2003

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