Commonly referred to as France’s neuvième art, the comic book (or bande dessinée) is part of the Francophone cultural fabric in ways that other national cinemas have failed, or refused, to come to terms with. Rather unsurprisingly, many French universities now offer course options in BD histories and traditions, and several domestic film festivals are devoted primarily to comic strip adaptations and BD releases.
Two recent films have explored in painstaking fashion the various animation trends currently in vogue in BD cinema – Les Triplettes de Belleville (2002) and Interstella 5555 (2003). In their own way, each film pushes back the boundaries of animation films and proves that imagination fused with classic draughtsmanship can produce two totally unique, though complementary, visual and aural experiences.
Les Triplettes de Belleville, or its exported title, Belleville Rendez-vous, was a bona fide animation classic when released across the festival circuit eighteen moths ago. A delightful melange of colour and tone, an irritatingly catchy theme tune and a liberal dollop of national stereotypes, this delightful tale of a kidnapped Tour de France cyclist and the lengths his devoted grandmother and dog go to rescue him showed how you didn’t always require famous voice-overs and gargantuan marketing strategies to fashion sentimental, humorous and exciting animation. Along with the equally superlative Spirited Away (2002), Sylvain Chomet’s film reduced audiences to a state of wide-eyed bewilderment by dint of its pared-down narrative and long stretches of near silence. Rarely had animation relied upon muted colour to obtain mood and atmosphere. It was, above all, very French. Visual and cultural imprimaturs jumped off the screen – the Tour de France, Chirac’s oleaginous TV addresses, preening waiters, a fascination with red wine – mingled with a more insidious, though still quaintly old-fashioned anti-Americanism. If the far-off land where the adventure takes grandmother and lovable pooch looks like a ghastly hybrid of New York and German Expressionism, that’s no accident. Here, all teenagers eat are hamburgers while everyone else wallows in a Tim Burton-style mood of despondency and greed. Even The Statue of Liberty is decidedly plump.
But the film is not meant as a tirade against the US, no less than a celebration of French bucolic life. Chomet’s strategy seems a conscious attempt to storm the gates of ossified animation techniques and suggest that whimsy and wit can co-exist without resorting to Robin Williams voice cameos or clinically designed CGI sequences that renders hand-drawn sequences virtually redundant. It comes as no surprise that many viewers still remember fondly the ‘Woody Allen years’ of animation. By that, I mean the ‘earlier, funnier ones’; the ones like Dumbo (1941) or The Jungle Book (1967), which eschewed a famous voice cast and limp audience-friendly gags and concentrated on telling a story in as charming and exuberant a way as possible. Much had been made recently of the decline of the ‘Mouse House’; of how Disney has been overtaken and thoroughly trumped by the like of DreamWorks and Pixar. Yet what Les Triplettes de Belleville has ultimately confirmed is that there is still a niche market out there for hand-drawn animation and old-fashioned narrative values.
Although Japanese in its conception and delivery, there is something acutely ‘French’ about Interstella 5555. The result of a union between French house band Daft Punk and veteran Japanese manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, the film combines stunning visuals with the music from Daft Punk’s second album Discovery to create what reviewers routinely labelled ‘a manga musical’.
When four musicians from another galaxy, complete with platinum teeth and Chris Waddle blue hair, are kidnapped by an evil record company boss from Earth, it is left to one devoted fan to track down the evil music baron, free the foursome and generally keep the world safe from those money-grabbing studios. Like Les Triplettes de Belleville, it is a slight, almost nonsensical plot, but one that is aware of its own limitations to such an extent that the brisk running time, kinetic exuberance and altogether nostalgic patina allow a hip and happy film to emerge.
The result is one that suggests new and exciting directions for animation. Even if, as I found, the Daft Punk singles are not immediately catchy (despite BBC’s best efforts to use them as backing music for anything connected to sport), Insterstella 5555 permits the viewer to be utterly taken along with the music and visuals. It is not stretching a point too far to declare that there is something magical about the fusion. Of course, echoes of other works resound throughout, which perhaps explains part of the film’s charm. The film evokes strong memories of ‘Battle of the Planets’ and ‘Ulysses 31’ and is replete with romance and action. The real coup is that instead of dialogue, the film relies solely upon music to carry the narrative and underscore emotion and mood. Moreover, the fridge-magnet colour scheme and fluid, lush movement of the characters means that we are spared yet another mixture of live-action animation and CG visuals. Finally, the device of using individual tracks as a natural demarcation line allows a seamless cinematic feel to infiltrate what could have become an irritating animation experience. The ultimate union of French music and Japanese visual grammar provides an in-built motor for the plot. No talking animals here, but the kind of artistic vision that has become increasingly rare in Hollywood animation discourse.
Strictly speaking, it’s not French, although a glance through the credits highlights a multinational collaboration. Nevertheless, there is something decidedly French again – for fat cat bosses, read Napster, Sony/EMI or music’s equivalent of Harvey Weinstein. Stroll down the Boulevard St. Germain and every other shop is a BD one, full of manga dolls, memorabilia and obscure but popular comic books. Remember too that France has made Tintin its adopted son, and several Latin Quarter cinema show endless re-runs of Studio Ghibli films.
It is hard to imagine Working Title dabbling in animation in any meaningful way, and heaven forbid Disney would be seen using trace-and-paint techniques for its next blockbuster. What Chomet and Matsumoto have demonstrated is that there is still plenty of scope for new animation techniques and styles. The former took five years to get Belleville just right, while the latter employed nearly two hundred draughtsmen. This is perhaps the final reason why this kind of animation will rarely be mimicked by Hollywood – it requires far too many man-hours for the project to be completed. Far better instead to feed the data into a computer and initiate a sleek but soulless facsimile.