The Triplets of Belleville

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Published: 17th October, 2016

Experiencing The Triplets of Belleville again, its timeless appeal was even more apparent the second time around, over a decade after I first saw it at the cinema. Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 animated feature has a nostalgia for early- and mid-20th century animation and music, as well as a narrative, visual and (almost dialogue-free) aural inventiveness, that make it a universal classic.

For this Melbourne Festival concert presentation, Montreal composer Benoît Charest and his Terrible Orchestre de Belleville played the soundtrack as the film was projected above them, highlighting the music’s brilliance and joie de vivre. Bringing the energy of a live club show to what is predominantly an homage to Paris’ old-timey hot jazz, this performance also revealed that the kookier instruments played in the film are not mere cinematic tricks.

A mounted, upturned bicycle was centre-stage, alongside other makeshift instruments such as teapot and vacuum cleaner. The musicians (and their more conventional instruments, including electric guitars, double bass, drums, trumpet and vibraphone) were ranged in a semi-circle around this little sound lab, to which they moved from time to time – to play a bicycle wheel’s spokes with drumsticks, perhaps, strum an old-fashioned fridge’s metal shelves, or rhythmically scrunch a newspaper.

Novelty instruments were the sprinkling of fun on a tight, intelligent jazz-oriented sound that oozed Paris nostalgia, from toe-tapping 1920s cabaret-style tunes and a bouncy, Bach-inspired piano number to film noir soundtracks and moody accordion.

A highlight of the performance saw Charest and two of his cohorts replicating the moves of the eponymous triplets on screen, stamping their feet, clicking fingers and slapping thighs. They didn’t hide their delighted relief at the conclusion of this fast, complex rhythm, which was typical of the eight-piece band’s upbeat mood and engagement with the film throughout. (Unfortunately I’m unable to refer to anyone other than Charest by name, as no program was available.)

Other highlights were the two renditions of the film’s infectious, Oscar-nominated song, Belleville Rendez-vous. For the opening-credits, it featured the recorded soundtrack’s female singers, while Charest took the vocal lead in a much looser but very enjoyable all-male version for the closing credits.

He took to the mic at other times, most notably as the far-off radio commentator of the film’s bicycle race. The way this faded in and out, in relation to on-screen cues, was one of many technical challenges. That the sound engineer’s task was considerable, and that much of what was heard was live, was apparent in the handful of generally minor audio issues – from the sax player vigorously motioning for his amplification to be pumped up at the start of the concert, to the impossibility of hearing the percussionist drumming the bicycle frame during the carnivalesque conclusion.

Although it was sometimes difficult not to become wholly engrossed in the film itself, Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville’s joyous, sometimes daring performance was never mere background music. Charest’s soundtrack has always been integral to The Triplets of Belleville’s quirky, wistful pleasure, so experiencing it live was a rare treat for music and cinema buffs alike.