1. Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003)
We have become accustomed to astonishing animated movies. The work of Pixar, in particular, has shown us how a million blades of grass can shimmer in the sunshine, how that sunshine can be vividly reflected on the perfectly rendered chrome of a speeding car, how that car (or rat or toy or fish or personality trait) can be a fully developed character in its own right. Pixar has shown us, too, that a film ostensibly intended for children can have not merely the occasional comedic moment to keep the adults interested, it can have entirely parallel narratives for its respective audiences. (Indeed, as A S Fell has suggested, Pixar invert the traditional relationship between the narratives: a Disney film, he argues, can be identified as an animated film for children with a sub-text aimed at adults; whereas a Pixar movie is in fact an animated film for adults, with a sub-text for children).
We have perhaps paid less attention to that genre of animation which eschews the children altogether (or which treats them as incidental) and which (for similar reasons) also rejects the use of computerised imagery. Think of Spirited Away or Persopolis; or Ernest and Ethel, the Raymond Briggs film broadcast over Christmas, which comprises a tender line-drawing biography of his parents (and reminds us of his 1986 film, When the Wind Blows, which animates the prelude to and aftermath of a nuclear attack); while Anomalisa is the Academy-award nominated stop-motion movie from Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind et al) reckoned by The Guardian to have been the best film – of any kind – of 2016.
Despite the limitless ability of modern CGI to embed hyper-real imagery within movies ostensibly using ‘real’ people and scenery – and thereby create entirely fictitious visual worlds (viz. Avatar, Gravity, Lord of the Rings, Potter etc) - animated movies seem to provide their creators with opportunities to re-interpret or re-present reality in a more comprehensive way. It is as if, freed from any convention that includes a regulation human, the film-maker can actually look even more closely at ‘the human condition’. This is somewhat uncanny; and it is perhaps no accident that such films, in being uncanny, are also frequently unsettling.
This is undoubtedly the territory occupied by Belleville Rendez-Vous. Set in a world of distended buildings, rectilinear baddies and impossibly tall ships, of extraordinary jazz, obsessive cycling and criminal sommeliers, Belleville tells the tale of a Tour-de-France cyclist who is kidnapped by the mafia for use in a gambling den and eventually rescued by his grandmother.
Or does it? Perhaps Belleville tells the tale of a doting grandmother, who lovingly supports her grandson’s passion for cycling and who rescues him from baddies when he is kidnapped and taken to the big city.
Or does it? Perhaps Belleville tells the tale of three singing sisters who, despite falling a long way from their music hall heyday (they now live in a tenement block used mainly by drug-dealers and prostitutes and survive on a diet exclusively of frogs, gathered each evening through the use of dynamite in the marshes) still concoct sublime music each evening and use their musical wits to help the grandmother and outwit the bad guys. (The film’s original title was ‘The Triplets of Belleville’.)
Or perhaps the film is actually about a faithful and very fat dog, without whom the cyclist would not have matured from boyhood, without whom the grandmother could not have rescued the boy, without whom the singers could not have helped the grandmother?
It doesn’t matter. We watch the film and enter its uncanny world, completely. The frogs wander dazed from the explosions, the gangsters have noses red and swollen from drinking too much wine, the cyclist has an upper body made of string and legs that are massaged each day using an egg whisk. The triplets cackle like witches while making music that is divine; the dog is so fat it nearly collapses each time it hurtles down the stairs and can be used as a spare tyre on the ‘broom van’ that collects the mad gibbering cyclists unable to complete the agonising climb up Mont Ventoux. The grandmother has a club foot which she uses, at the end of the curtain-closing chase scene, to fling the chief baddie from an impossibly high bridge to an explosive end in the chimney of a passing ship.
What does it all mean? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. For 78 minutes we leave the ‘real’ world far behind and enter an alternative reality so thoroughly and wonderfully and powerfully conceived that the experience is its own reward. There are no analogies, no metaphors, because they are not needed: it is sufficient in and of itself; enough is enough, so why have more?
But there is, even in that conclusion, a hint of what the film is ‘about’: how far is enough? How far can you go? How far will you go? How committed are you to the thing that you love? Committed enough to cycle the Tour de France? Committed enough to use a pedalo to cross an ocean to save your grandson? To be used as a spare tyre? To live in penury and eat nothing but frogs so that you can make music for the gods?
To make a movie as strange and brilliant as Belleville Rendez-Vous? If that’s the question, then this film is a wonderful answer.