Intertextual Rendez-Vous: Viewing The Triplets of Belleville from an American Perspective
by: Sara Levine
In order to study how audience members engage with various media forms, it may be necessary to draw on linguistic theories of text and intertextuality. A film, for example, would be referred to as the text. A text exists as a convergence of meanings (or signified meanings in the semiotic sense of the word) and is always “read” simultaneously with other texts. This intertextual process when applied to a medium such as film could expand outward from language, authorship, and genre to variations of sound, visual presentation, narrative structures, celebrity, etc. A text may have been produced with a certain subculture of addressees in mind. Once the text is disseminated, however, the author’s control over the meaning of her or his work is eclipsed by the audience’s reception. The Triplets of Belleville, created by Sylvain Chomet in 2003, is a film that seems to demand that viewers combine the various encyclopedic texts that they carry around with them in order to enjoy the film.
Visual Presentation: Animation
Animated films in America are, for the most part, relegated to the genre of children’s films. By 2003, many animation companies had turned to three-dimensional animation techniques, and 2D animation had fallen by the wayside. 2D animated characters were lively, colorful, and fairly innocent in order to reflect the characteristics of their young audience. Many Americans grew up with Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Lion King, etc. that seemed to set codified standards for the animated feature film genre. Consequently, American audiences sat down to watch The Triplets of Belleville while comparing it with various other texts and animation codes. As Radford wrote, “You are not reading this text at random, but rather in conjunction with other texts that you have read or are familiar.” In this case, American audiences inevitably draw a sharp contrast between the text they are engaging with and the encyclopedic knowledge of texts that they carry with them as Americans. The animation in The Triplets of Belleville is unlike most animated styles favored by American production companies. Motion is not as exaggerated as in American cartoons, and there is a focus on small movements. The palette is not particularly bright or seemingly “happy.” In fact, there are adult situations within the narrative that would not be found in the majority of American animated feature films. The only animated segment that comes close to American animation is the very beginning in which the audience is introduced to the titular Triplets of Belleville. The animation is reminiscent of the infamous “Steamboat Willie” short produced by Disney in 1928, but features more mature content. This comparison made between the animation style of The Triplets of Belleville and American animated feature films may have led American audiences to view The Triplets of Belleville as more of a highbrow, artistic piece of work rather than a piece of mindless entertainment for children.
The Triplets of Belleville relies heavily on its soundtrack in order to move the narrative forward. The music composed for the film draws from a wide variety of genres and combines musical stylings that are both familiar and unfamiliar to American audiences. There is an upbeat jazz rendition of “Belleville Rendez-vous”, the accordion music during the bicycle race, and the piece composed entirely of sounds when Mme Souza joins the Triplets in a performance. The jazz piece may combine an American audience’s knowledge of jazz as a remnant of history and as an indicator of nostalgia. The accordion music and other songs the characters play on phonographs may be meaningful in that they are representative of French culture to Americans. Again, the combinatorial nature of pairing distinctly non-American animation with non-American music may indicate to American audiences that this film is to be viewed as innovative. The piece of music that is made up entirely of sounds may require a great deal of intertextual processing. There is the interpretive process of recognizing the sounds, pairing them with the equipment that is producing the sound (newspaper, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, etc.), recognizing the noises as music, and placing this music within the context of previous knowledge of music and its genres. Utilizing noise in order to create music is not a new phenomenon, but its combination with Chomet’s animation and storyline present it as unfamiliar in this context to American audiences.
Chomet also uses music to indicate which characters are on screen. The villains of this story, for example, have their own theme song that returns every time these characters appear. This method of recall within the text allows the composers to play on variations of the villains’ theme. The tune will be recognizable to audiences, and they will be able to remember this theme the next time it plays in the movie. The villains may not even necessarily be in the shot for audiences to hear the music and know that the villains are somewhere in the vicinity.
Language, or Lack Thereof
The Triplets of Belleville is particularly invested in its music because there is a distinct and noticeable lack of dialogue or subtitles throughout the film. Some characters, like the Triplets, communicate in grunts and short noises made from the throat. Brief snatches of French can be heard from televisions and radios. Otherwise, the film is propelled through sound and music. The disappearance of dialogue helps to destroy the language barrier that otherwise may have impeded an American audience’s interpretive process while engaging with the text. However, this absence may be one of the film’s most noticeable aspect because most modern day media forms rely on dialogue and/or subtitles.
Character design in The Triplets of Belleville does not seem to be synonymous with what American audiences are familiar with in terms of animation style. Heavy characters are massive and take up large sections of the screen, whereas the bicyclists are wiry and bony. Noses tend to protrude out of the face and are larger than the characters’ heads in some cases. It can be inferred, therefore, that these animations are not meant to convey the same amount of what could be considered “cuteness” as in American animated feature films. The exaggerations in size and placement of body parts affects the way in which the characters move across the screen. American audiences may therefore draw on other cultural texts in terms of American animations, but also the way people look in the physical world. Belleville seems to be a stand-in for New York City, as indicated by the rather large depiction of the Statue of Liberty holding a hamburger. Americans are drawn as almost grotesquely large people who waddle down the street, and the city is depicted as a crowded and claustrophobic setting. American audiences, therefore, will inevitably view these designs with their particular cultural norms and viewpoints about their own culture while they engage with the text.
Although this film does not strictly adhere to Joseph Campbell’s concept of “The Hero’s Journey,” in which a young (usually male) hero must heed the call to face certain challenges on a journey to a magical or supernatural setting, the tenets are visible enough that American audiences may use it to draw meaning from the film’s narrative. In The Triplets of Belleville, Mme Souza must travel to Belleville in order to rescue her grandson from the sinister machinations of the French mafia. Many of the main aspects of “The Hero’s Journey” are present in the narrative, including a call to action, several dangerous obstacles, help from almost supernatural beings (the Triplets), and the actual journey to an unfamiliar setting. However, the gendered and ageist stereotypes of most of these types of narratives are done away with in order to present Mme Souza and the Triplets as the heroes of the film. The narrative structure is familiar to most American audiences, but it is combined with an elderly female character type in place of the young hero. The elderly are not typically featured as main characters in American film and television. In this case, however, their roles are subverted and combined with “The Hero’s Journey” narrative in order to create a story that is at once familiar and unfamiliar to American audiences*.
History, Geography, and French Culture
There are certain references within The Triplets of Belleville that American audiences may not be receptive to because these references are intended for French audiences. The mania surrounding the Tour de France, for example, may not be ingrained in the American audience’s cultural encyclopedia. Similarly, certain character and setting designs may hold particular meaning for French audiences that does not carry over to American audiences. There may be, for example, a signified meaning for French people in the way the bicyclists are drawn and are animated in an almost equine manner. Additionally, while American audiences may be well-versed about the presentation of nostalgia for the Jazz Age in New York City, they might be less informed about the changes in Parisian society and culture in the first half of the 20th century. The Triplets of Belleville, however, combines these histories and cultural references in order to tell a story that spans across these two cities.
It is also important to note that Chomet may have borrowed or drawn upon various film and animation codes from other French films and animations that is not evident to American audiences. Consequently, the distribution of this film may have introduced certain codes and genres that seem new and innovative to American audiences. However, the rich and varied history of French culture and media production most likely had some amount of impact on Chomet’s work.
*This, however, has become less unusual with films such as Pixar’s Up.
Agger, Gunhild. “Intertextuality Revisited: Dialogues and Negotiations in Media Studies.” Canadian Journal of Aesthetics 4 (1999): n. pag. Web. <http://www.uqtr.uquebec.ca/AE/vol_4/gunhild.htm>.
Barthes, Roland, and Stephen Heath. “From Work to Text.” Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. N. pag. Print.
Radford, Gary P. “Beware of the Fallout: Umberto Eco and the Making of the Model Reader.” The Modern Word. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_papers_radford.html>.
The Triplets of Belleville. Dir. Sylvain Chomet. By Sylvain Chomet. 2003. DVD.