Two Charming Foreigners

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LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE
Traditional animation is supposed to be dead, the victim of cost overruns and audience apathy. The shiny plastic toys of computer cartoons enchant the world — Finding Nemo is still the year's top-grossing film — while Disney and DreamWorks can't wait to junk a grand cinematic form that stretches, in glory and profit, from Snow White to The Lion King and beyond.

Apparently Sylvain Chomet didn't get the news. The French comic-strip artist spent five years making Les Triplettes de Belleville (also known as Belleville Rendez-vous), about an old woman who raises her grandson to be a Tour de France champion. There's a dog, some bike-napping mafiosi and three old chanteuses whose diet consists entirely of frogs they catch by tossing hand grenades into a nearby stream. Vous guessed it by now: Triplettes is terrific.


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Chomet (who did use computer animation for the film's cars, boats and trains) has a canny design eye to match his narrative wit. The old woman is stocky and clubfooted, a compact metaphor for stubborn dedication; her grandson is so spindly he could ride Giacometti's Chariot; Bruno the dog has more personality than 101 Dalmatians. The movie isn't aimed at kids, but they will find plenty to beguile them. And don't worry that the film is French; it has hardly any dialogue. Doesn't need it. The gnarly imagery and the movie's understanding of the human impulse not just to survive but also to save others are eloquent enough.

Nemo and his dad may be a lock for the next animation Oscar, and we would hate to choose between Pixar's instant classic and this French frolic. But there's no competition for the fall's most imaginative delight. In that race, Triplettes can already take its victory lap.

-- Richard Corliss

GLOOMY SUNDAY
Gloomy Sunday was an international pop hit of 1933, written by a couple of denizens of the Hungarian equivalent of Tin Pan Alley and made famous in the U.S. by Billie Holiday. The movie of the same title imagines a more romantic genesis. It has the piece written by a broody piano player (Stefano Dionisi) at a restaurant as a seemingly hopeless love offering to its manager (Erika Marozsan), who is the mistress of its wry, civilized owner (Joachim Krol).

Or maybe not so hopeless. The trio enters into a sweet-spirited menage a trois, and the Weltschmerz-laden song ascends the charts, but with this odd bullet attached: quite a few people have it on the record player when they commit suicide. The song's climb prefigures Nazism's rise — and the demise of the old, gemutlich Europe symbolized by the restaurant.

All this sounds improbably melodramatic, but that reckons without considering the tone German director and co-writer Rolf Schubel establishes, a kind of sweet-tart nostalgia that's capable of accommodating the muted horror of the film's later passages as well as a great morally balancing surprise ending. It also reckons without taking into account the acting, especially Krol's combination of innocence and worldliness and Marozsan's blend of yielding and manipulation. The film is high romance, rather like those American movies of the 1940s — people snatching at happiness in a world aflame. We don't make them anymore — stupid us — but we ought to be glad someone does.

--By Richard Schickel