The selection of a film for family viewing is a precise and delicate art, particularly with us all now confined to quarters in intergenerational lockdown. Should the film-picker misjudge the terrain on ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, the entire family will be condemned to sit, agonized, through the dreaded onset of rhythmic heavy breathing and beyond, until finally someone cracks and mumbles ‘this is a bit racy’ while reaching for the fast-forward button.
On the other hand, some of the full-throttle kids’ films seem designed to test adult sanity to its limit. I made the mistake once of watching Rugrats in Paris with a hangover, and when the maniacally squeaky voices of its animated characters reached a certain pitch, I could almost feel my wincing brain reverberating in my skull.
As a resolution to this problem, I present to you the work of Sylvain Chomet, a French animator of genius. I don’t throw ‘genius’ around lightly, but I have never seen any other animation that manages to be so pungently original and powerfully charming without ever becoming fey.
The film for which Chomet first became widely known is his debut feature, Belleville Rendez-Vous (2003) — a story of a hapless French cyclist, his indefatigable grandmother, and an ancient trio of former music-hall stars who come to their aid.
The plot and its destination — although pleasurable — are not as important as the intense degree of joy in getting there. From the outset, every detail — the songs, the toothy accordion-player, even the patterned floor tiles — exudes ‘a certain idea of France’, to borrow a phrase from General de Gaulle (who himself appears here on a crackling television, briefly but sonorously, to urge on the Tour de France).
At the outset, the tiny, club-footed grandmother, Madame Souza, lives alone with her small grandson Champion in a teetering, vertical house near a busy railway. The orphaned boy is sad-eyed and portly, like a doleful little pigeon, companionless save for a quivering yellow hound named Bruno. His grandmother glimpses a possible distraction: a bicycle, and she starts to train him up.
The years pass, until Champion is a sinewy Tour de France contestant with bulging calf muscles — whereupon he is abducted by shadowy members of the Mafia, who wear their massive shoulders higher than their heads. His captors take him by steamer across the sea to the metropolis of Belleville, hotly pursued by Madame Souza and Bruno on a pedalo. Thereafter, grandmother and dog — rendered stubborn by love — combine with the singing crones to effect a daring rescue.
What makes a master animator? I think it is where an eye for tiny details meets a mind wide open to the surreal. The hand-drawn animation of Belleville Rendez-Vous isn’t only a homage to the France of the 1950s, but also the films and music-hall culture of the 1920s: Django Reinhardt pops up, smoking a cigarette while playing the guitar with a seemingly elastic foot, and a dapper Fred Astaire dances until his tap shoes sprout teeth and drag him off stage. There is almost no dialogue: the film doesn’t need it, being powered by an addictive musical soundtrack.
Should you wish to extend the Chomet experience, there is also his subsequent film The Illusionist (2010) — a wistful, poetic gem, based on an original screenplay by Jacques Tati, about a traveling conjurer who finds himself down on his luck as popular taste shifts from vaudeville to pop.
Start with Belleville Rendez-Vous, though. You won’t regret it, not least because it features the most endearingly stoic grandmother in film history. The film was up for an Oscar in 2004, under its US title The Triplets of Belleville, but lost out to Finding Nemo.
We all know the little stripy fish was enchanting, of course — but, for my money at least, the Academy made the wrong call.