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France's Tati is a constant presence in 'Belleville'


The Triplets of Belleville may be a most unusual film, but its influences are too many to count. This surreal slice of French animation doffs its hat to everyone from classic cartoon masters Max and Dave Fleischer to the old Tintin books to the silent comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

But the man who looms largest over this tale of familial love, bicycle racing and French gangsters is known by far too few American moviegoers, despite his reputation as a treasure of French cinema.

He is Jacques Tati, a comic/filmmaker who did most of his great work in the '50s and '60s, without ever opening his mouth.

One of the great byproducts of Belleville -- and there are many -- is that it has film people once again discussing Tati, best known for playing the lanky, pipe-smoking Monsieur Hulot in M. Hulot's Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). In a fortuitous bit of timing, the Criterion Collection has recently put both films back in print, and both, especially Mon Oncle, hold up well.

Belleville's director, Sylvain Chomet, openly acknowledges his debt to Tati, who died in 1982. Chomet even decorates the triplets' walls with Tati images. But he really doesn't have to. The connection is clear with every dialogue-free sequence, droll slapstick gag and appreciative depiction of old-world design and charm.

Belleville is now an Oscar nominee for best animated film and best song, and its bizarre story of familial devotion, bicycle racing and oddly shaped gangsters landed it on numerous 2003 Top 10 lists (it opened in Baltimore last week). But it's not always easy for contemporary audiences to watch a film with almost no dialogue.

Our expectations are wired so that we want characters to tell jokes, make observations, engage each other with words. But films that eschew words in favor of noises are more purely cinematic than any yakfest. Film is, after all, a visual art form, as opposed to literature, which has only language at its disposal.

Tati knew this, and so does Chomet. The ever-fanciful Triplets uses sound effects -- a whistle blowing, feet clomping over a wood floor and, especially, music coming from unlikely sources -- to punctuate the gleeful absurdity in some degree of reality.

Ironically, this largely silent film is also a feast for the ears, in which each comic set piece seems to have its own soundtrack.

Tati's classics, particularly Mon Oncle, have a similar way of using dialogue only as an occasional crutch when images and ambient sound won't suffice.

In Mon Oncle, one of cinema's greatest satires on technology and modernization, Tati's M. Hulot is consistently baffled by his brother-in-law's ridiculously high-tech home. But the cues are often more aural than visual.

For instance, every important visitor is greeted by the gurgling of an atrocious fish fountain that spits a stream of water into the air. The gate to the yard is opened with a harsh buzzing noise.

And when the brother-in-law sends the hapless Hulot to a job interview, he opens the door to the office building and hears a loud, unwelcoming humming noise that speaks of droning monotony.

Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz comments on this aesthetic approach in his Mon Oncle DVD liner notes: "It uses sound the way Chaplin used sound in City Lights and Modern Times -- as tapestries of aural gestures (car horns, footsteps, bird calls) that accentuate the director's economical, cartoonlike style," he writes. "Dialogue is avoided unless absolutely necessary; Tati would rather identify characters mainly by their dress, posture and behavior, and by how they interact with their complex, impersonal and often silly environment."

The sounds and sights of Tati and the triplets convey a nostalgic philosophy of time and place, a longing for and appreciation of community and leisure.

Some critics have commented on the "old-world" look of Triplets. But this is really a film of two worlds: the cozy, manageable streets where our hero, Champion, is raised and trained for the Tour de France by his grandma, and the bustling, chaotic city, full of commerce and consumption, where Champion is taken after he is kidnapped.

Much as in Tati's work, the low-tech is given the high moral ground. The triplets exemplify this approach with their utilitarian jam sessions, performed with refrigerator shelving, a vacuum cleaner and a newspaper.

Champion's granny, attempting to clean up around the house, mistakes these objects for what they are; she has no idea that a sturdy newspaper can anchor a rhythm section.

Here we have another Tati staple: the mistaking of one object for another, with escalating comic results.

The classic Tati example comes in M. Hulot's Holiday, when Hulot changes a flat tire (an action repeated in Triplets). He drops his skimpy little spare on the ground, which is covered with wet leaves that make the tire look like a wreath.

There happens to be a funeral in progress just a few feet away, and Hulot, bearing his wreath/tire, is mistaken for a mourning relative of the deceased.

All of this happens without a single spoken word, but it remains funny every time you see it.

The Triplets of Belleville is many things: a strange cartoon, a melancholy adventure story, an ode to old Paris. But it's also an homage to an artist often overshadowed in film history by Truffaut, Godard and the rest of the French New Wave.

Now, thanks to a funky trio of musical old ladies, Jacques Tati lives anew.

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