With its sepia tones, jazz score and eccentric Jacques Tati-esque characters, it’s easy to forget The Triplets of Belleville was only released in 2003.
It was a huge hit, and the animated comedy soon won a cult following, as well as nominations for two Academy Awards – Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. It was also screened out of competition (hors concours) at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival.
While it missed out to Finding Nemo on Best Animated Feature, Canadian guitarist Benoît Charest won the Oscar for Belleville Rendez-vous, as well as a Cesar Award for the film’s score.
Now Canadian Charest is in Australia – for the first time – at the Melbourne Festival, where his band is performing the score live alongside screenings of Les Triplettes de Belleville, as it was called in French.
The movie itself is always a joy, filled with delightful detail and oddities that seem to reveal more with each viewing. With an animated jazz band enjoying themselves alongside, it’s double the fun.
The storyline follows a young man, Champion, being raised by his grandmother, Madame Souza, who discovers his talent for road cycling. She becomes his coach – chasing behind him on a tricycle and toot-tooting her whistle as he scales steep hills and rattles down cobblestoned roads at all hours of the day and night, often accompanied by her overweight galumphing hound, Bruno.
However as he is racing in the Tour de France, he and two other riders are kidnapped by French mafia – the identical henchmen clad in black with perfectly square shoulders – and whisked away to the big city, where they are made to ride a Heath Robinson-style stationary road race that the tiny mafia boss uses for gambling.
Mme Souza and Bruno track the kidnappers but lose the scent in the city. However, they are taken in by the ancient but lively Belleville triplets, former jazz singers who still break out into spontaneous song. Much hilarity and musicality ensues, the highlight probably the alleyway performance of Belleville Rendezvous, accompanied by much foot stomping, thigh slapping and finger snapping – and by i playing percussion on a bicycle wheel.
It’s a perfect vehicle for the Charest band to let loose with improvised sound effects – including a bicycle wheel on stage – and one of the many moments when your eyes are drawn more to the band than the screen; at other times the synchronicity is so perfect you almost forget the band is there.
Another gorgeous scene involves the mafia boss visiting a speakeasy where the sisters are performing and there is so much happening it’s hard to say which is the funniest: the obsequious waiter literally bending over backwards to please the gangsters, the sisters improvising with newspaper, fridge trays and a vacuum cleaner to bang out a toe-tapping number, or Bruno’s food-bowl dreams as he sleeps off stage. Again, Charest and band rustle up some newspaper on the stage below and compete for your attention, too.
The dialogue is limited but the soundtrack is teeming with sounds, as well as the glorious music – it’s almost like watching a radio sound effects team at work at times, and highly entertaining.
The live music to movie movement seems to be growing, with the Philip Glass Ensemble replacing La Belle et La Bete’s original soundtrack with a classical opera earlier this month and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra planning a summer season of MSO at the Movies, playing along to five classic movies, plus four shows of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Art in Concert from November 3-5.
The Melbourne Festival performances may now be all sold out but if you get a chance to see either Triplets of Benoit Charest in the future, grab it.
2016 Melbourne Festival
Triplets of Belleville
with Benoit Charest
Venue: Elisabeth Murdoch Hall | Melbourne Recital Centre
Dates: 14 & 16 October 2016
Tickets: $69 – $49
Benoit Charest and friends will be joined by Peter Knight at The Toff in Town, 252 Swanston St, Melbourne tonight, Saturday October 15, at 8.30pm. Tickets: $29.