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The Ghost of Dave Fleischer

In the opening minutes of Belleville Rendez-vous, the feature-length cartoon released in the U.S. in November 2003 as The Triplets of Belleville, the French animator-director Sylvain Chômet reveals his program for the entire film, although it's not clear for a while just how sly and subtle that program is.

Triplets of Belleville DVDThose opening minutes, black-and-white animation in the style of Max and Dave Fleischer's Talkartoons, echo the Fleischer cartoons' squirming animation and cheerfully bizarre transformations. It's relatively easy now to capture the surface of that early-thirties Fleischer style—it was done very well a few years ago in the animated music video The Ghost of Stephen Foster—but much harder to capture its essence, because the circumstances that resulted in such peculiar cartoons were themselves so peculiar. The most distinctive qualities of the Fleischer cartoons were, as I wrote in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, the product of "happy accidents."

The Fleischer cartoons had "an essentially mechanical, unimaginative core"—thanks to an insistence on slow, evenly timed animation—that was embellished in "a glancing, all but random way" by Dave Fleischer, who wanted a gag in every scene and the characters in constant motion. "Interpolating bizarre gags and rhythmic twitching into cartoons otherwise dominated by smooth, unaccented animation meant that those cartoons took on a hallucinatory quality: they were, in their zombielike pacing, their aimlessness, and their arbitrary transformations, literally dreamlike."

Making Fleischeresque cartoons that really feel like Fleischer cartoons is akin to trying to recall a dream a few minutes after waking. There is none of that dreamlike quality in Chômet's opening homage, and no attempt at it. The feature proper is wholly dreamlike, though, and it's soon apparent that Chômet has understood—how consciously I don't know—that the only way to achieve a Fleischer-like result today is by adopting a strategy directly opposed to the Fleischers' reliance on "happy accidents." There is nothing in the least accidental about Belleville Rendez-vous; rather, Chômet has proceeded as if in a heightened state of awareness. Every detail of every frame is the product of a calculating mind that I'm sure Max and Dave would have found incomprehensible.

Having demonstrated in his film's opening minutes that he can reproduce the surface of the Fleischer style, Chômet immediately departs from it. Although he makes occasional effective use of computer animation, Belleville Rendez-vous is overwhelmingly hand-drawn, in a sophisticated style that owes nothing to the Fleischer cartoons. ("I draw," Chômet has said, "and it's drawing that interests me.") The Fleischer cartoons are present throughout Belleville Rendez-vous only in a ghostly way, as a reference point for Chômet's precisely executed artistic decisions, most notably in his handling of his characters.

The character designs grew out of the tradition of French political caricature (the caricature of Charles De Gaulle early in the film is a signal of what Chômet is up to). The characters thus owe far more to Daumier than to any American models. Whereas American caricature has tended to be gentle—think of Al Hirschfeld's work, beautiful as drawings but with no hint of criticism of his subjects—the European variety has been far colder, even savage. The three principal characters in Belleville—Madame Souza, her grandson the bicyclist Champion, and his dog Bruno—are all grotesques whose designs create distance between them and the audience. To invoke Fred Moore's famous criterion, they have no "appeal." Moreover, they are allowed only enough traces of emotion to banish any sense that they are mere robots. They are not shallow, like many more obviously "expressive" characters—they are instead opaque, deliberately so.

The Fleischers were indifferent to how appealing their characters were, and they were correspondingly careless with character designs, but Chômet knew that such indifference would become less amusing than annoying over the length of a feature. He thus achieves a Fleischer-like effect—characters that seem strange and remote—not by neglecting his characters, but by giving them intense attention, molding them in a way that places obstacles in the path of any temptation to identify with them. The city of Belleville itself is similarly odd, a wildly baroque New York most of whose residents are morbidly obese (another example of that savagely satirical European tradition at work).

The "virtual bicycle race" that drives the plot is exactly the sort of thing—sinister but ridiculous—that might turn up in an early-thirties Fleischer cartoon. In keeping with Chômet's sensitivity to the requirements of his film's length, whole sequences are like weird throwaway Fleischer gags inflated to monstrous size, as when the Triplets (a young singing trio in black and white, much older but still singing the same nonsense lyrics in color) use explosives to harvest the frogs that are the mainstay of their diet. The few "real" gags—the kinds of gags that would be underlined in a conventional Hollywood cartoon, as when the dog is drafted into duty as a wheel for a van, or Madame Souza trips the villains' car with her orthopedic shoe—arrive in the offhanded manner of the Fleischer throwaways.

Chômet's use of sound is, again, like a clever updating of a Fleischer model. To quote Hollywood Cartoons again: "Typically, in a postrecorded Fleischer cartoon of the early thirties, most of the dialogue is muttered, with no attempt at synchronization; mouth movements have been animated for only a few lines of dialogue, emphatically voiced. The Fleischer cartoons sound just as random and accidental as they look."

Such casualness wouldn't pass muster today, but Chômet achieves a similarly otherworldly effect by shunning dialogue almost entirely and using spoken words only as background noise. If we can't understand what De Gaulle is saying when he speaks on television, it simply doesn't matter, no more than it matters that the unsynchronized dialogue in the Talkartoons is mere chatter. The principal Belleville characters' silence is eerie, but not unbelievable. Considering how odd they are in other respects, it seems perfectly reasonable that they would be close-mouthed.

Even Chômet's use of an excerpt from Mozart's C Minor Mass to accompany Madame Souza's pursuit of her kidnapped grandson could be parsed as an analogue to the Fleischers' appropriation of existing songs—songs that sometimes didn't really belong—for their cartoons. I don't want to pursue the comparisons that far, though. Belleville is filled with sounds and images—the towering freighter, the coffin-shaped gangsters—that reinforce the dreamlike atmosphere but don't have any obvious parallels in the Fleischer cartoons. Chômet's strategy allowed him enormous flexibility in pursuing a very specific result.

Belleville Rendez-vous was made at studios in France, Belgium, and Canada. Chômet himself has worked as an animator in England and on character designs for Disney in Canada, but even though he has spoken of animation as "essentially an Anglo-Saxon genre," Belleville is very much a French film—highly intelligent, relentlessly logical, and more than a little chilly. If I have reservations about it, they arise from its implicit rejection of what I've described as animation's greatest strength—its ability to erase the difference between "inner" and "outer," so that animated characters are wholly present on the screen in a way that even the best actors cannot be. Chômet, like the Fleischers before him, closes off his characters instead. However intriguing the results, in films like the Fleischers' Snow White or Chômet's Belleville Rendez-vous, there is a cost involved, and I'm not sure it's worth paying.

It's true, historically, that live-action cinema grew out of primitive forms of animation, rather than the reverse, but I think it's also true that hand-drawn animation's capacity for artistic expression preceded and still exceeds that of live-action films. Overwhelmingly, the impulse behind live-action films has been to conceal the evidence of artifice, to make them seem more like a record of real events; and, paradoxically, the more successful that effort, the more alienating the surviving evidence of artifice becomes. With hand-drawn animation, though, there can never really be any question of concealing artifice, even when the animation is most "realistic," and so the filmmakers can concern themselves not with how true their film looks, but with how true it is.

To judge from his statements as well as his film, Sylvain Chômet is a dedicated partisan of hand-drawn animation, but Belleville Rendez-vous, despite its many undeniable virtues, does not respond to that opportunity but instead clambers into one of those niches reserved for eccentric, one-of-a-kind films. I look forward to seeing it again, but I'll return more often, and with greater enthusiasm, to the handful of hand-drawn animated features and the few dozen short cartoons that open up whole worlds.

[Posted February 29, 2004]