Bruno barks again

This article was published in 2003, in Newsletter 50.

Every so often a film comes along which is something to do with cycling. As a French passion, so often the origin is France. In the case of Belleville Rendez-vous shown at the Arts Picturehouse recently, that’s pretty much true, though the production is thoroughly international. Here is a little review.

Madame Souza never lets up on Champion’s training regime.

Belleville Rendez-vous is a short feature length drawn animation. In the manner of cartoons, it tells the fantastical story of the rescue of Champion, kidnapped during his Tour de France ride by the Belleville mafia. He is put to work cycling on a fixed stage in a theatre for the mafia to exploit by betting. In the meantime, his grandmother-coach Madame Souza and his dog Bruno (who loves toffees and barks at trains incessantly) set out across the ocean to Belleville to rescue him. There they meet up with the Triplettes, forgotten singing stars of the thirties. Together they set out to free Champion culminating in a car-cycle chase around the streets of Belleville.

The film is beautifully drawn and coloured. It’s almost a series of set pieces: the country home of Champion’s childhood, the encroaching development as he grows up, the Tour, a chase across the ocean, Belleville squalor, and the chase at the end. Champion himself has no character: he lives only for the Tour. And in fact there is little character development of any of the players. Bruno the dog is perhaps the most, shall we say, animated.

Les Triplettes meet Madame Souza when she discovers how to play music on a bicycle wheel.

However, the film is full of little sideswipes and observations on different societies. The two-dimensionality and fanaticism of the Tour participants, the sad decline of Champion’s house in the face of a spreading city and the railway viaduct, the poverty of the old Triplettes, reduced to a state where their diet is entirely of frogs (perhaps a little bit of self-deprecation by the French there). Belleville is a parody of New York, down to the obese Statue of Liberté.

Maybe there’s a tendency of the film to push the jokes a bit beyond their limits. For example, Bruno’s incessant barking becomes tedious (but then aren’t dogs’ habits just like that). That makes it a little slow, especially near the start. In the end, though, it is the surreal world that only animation can create that is the making of the film. But perhaps it is only in this surreal world that the cyclists can outwit and win over the cars.

David Earl