Madame Souza’s home in Sylvain Chomet’s dark, comic vision “Les Triplettes de Belleville” may resemble a vintage store in Williamsburg, but it also looks like a grandmother owns it. The minute we step inside her home, we know Madame Souza’s is a traditional French woman. She has decorated her house with a floral patterned furniture, grandfather clock, antique piano, hardback books and carved wooden chairs. Sylvain Chomet’s attention to detail is superb; down to the tiny “O Galo de Barcelos “(Portuguese rooster) motifs on her plastic tablecloth.
Madame Souza’s home illustrates that she is a strong-willed traditionalist. Seasons pass and everything in the area around her little provincial house in the French countryside changes; new buildings spring up and modern airplanes soar above, and eventually her home is shouldered to one side by an elevated highway, but her house’s interior remains the same.
We are made aware from the very beginning that she is thrifty and industrious. She compensates for her uneven leg length with one platform heel and one flat shoe. She knits constantly. Some of the objects she owns are old, but they are well taken care of, repaired and never discarded. Everything she owns seems to serve a dual purpose like when she uses her whisk to massage her grandson Champion’s calves after a long cycle, a thoughtful action showing her dedication to her grandson’s well being.
Her grandson’s bedroom is decorated entirely in bicycle motifs including wallpaper, sheets, photographs, and trinkets and represent his obsessive personality and love of cycling. Champion’s bed stays the same from his youth to adulthood and we see him curve himself to fit the shape, again alluding to the family’s frugal, sparing nature.
When her grandson is kidnapped by the French mafia and taken to Belleville, Madame Souza doesn’t jump in a speedboat or cling to the side of the ship, she (somehow!) travels to Belleville on a small pedal boat, simply ignoring the 1Franc per 20 minutes rule.
While resting under a bridge, she meets the Triplets of Belleville, three eccentric elderly sisters, who were once successful vaudeville performers. But although the triplets and Madame Souza never utter a word to each other, they have an affinity through making music with everyday objects – Madame Souza with a bicycle wheel and the sisters with every object imaginable. And when the triplets invite her to their home, we learn they also both share a fondness for floral patterns and carved wood.
You follow the triplets through a narrow seedy corridor full of open toilets, flies and prostitutes and are welcomed into their home. The dimly lit apartment has a similar aesthetic to the speakeasy but also to Madam Souza’s home, albeit a lot less coordinated. There remains a hint of old world grandeur as the objects were certainly decadent at one point, but an air of decaying luxury dominates as the torn floral wallpaper reveals exposed wood, the beautiful antique piano is horribly out of tune and the floral chaise longue is quite worn.
There is certainly a grotesque quality to the women’s actions in their homes like as they comb their long hair and admire themselves in the dusty mirror. They seem to ignore the passing or time and reject change by hoarding every worn, declining object. Photographs in an assortment frames hold tightly to their memories. Both homes look as through nothing has changed in the past fifty years, but for different reasons. Madame’s reason is to not being wasteful, but for the elderly triplets it is about not wanting to let go of their luxurious past. Our objects are reminders of time’s passing, and although they may get dusty or worn, it is actually us who changes most drastically.
The triplet’s eccentric, offbeat personality manifests itself in the apartment’s decoration. All logic is abandoned at the door: instruments adorn the walls and perfectly polished, empty fridges are treasured and played like a double bass. These same household items transition from musical instruments to weapons and shields in the exciting final scene, elevating the ordinary object along the streets of Belleville.
These streets in the bustling metropolis are equally quirky and surreal as the interiors of the buildings. The city is loosely based on New York, as evidenced by the fat Statue of Liberty on the waterfront, but is also part Montreal. The decaying Beaux-Arts buildings have been distorted and stretched and then piled on top of each other. Chomet also takes great
artistic liberty in exaggerating people’s shape to be either grotesquely fat or horribly skinny, so they too become like surreal props. It is heavy handed, exaggerated, and yes, borderline racist, but that’s the point – it gives the movie its quirky, creepy, unearthly quality.
Animation gives directors the freedom to completely dictate the look of every single aspect of a movie, from its characters, streets, buildings to its objects so they all become production design decisions. Animation often uses these elements not only to reflect the personalities of the characters in the movie but also to point our own views of people and places, whether they are idolized, negative or overly simplified. In the “Team America” movie’s opening scene in Paris, the streets are paved with croissant shapes and all familiar landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the L’Arc de Triomphe are mere meters from each other. These kinds of animated films give us a glimpse into how Europeans views America and how Americans views Europe – and even though we don’t always want to admit it, it can be a reminder of the stereotypical views that we believe in.