The Triplets of Belleville analysis

An analysis with spoilers of The Triplets of Belleville (directed by Sylvain Chomet and released in 2003), the greatest satirical movie that I have seen. I wrote this for people who have already seen the film, and it may not make sense if you haven’t. I was surprised that I couldn’t find a review which points out the underlying meaning that I see.

I’d love to be twisted,
utterly twisted,
twisted like a triplet from Belleville.

—from the “Belleville Rendez-Vous” song

The movie is an allegory about the commercialization and professionalization of the entertainment industry. It can also be read more broadly as a warning of what we lose in the drive for profit.

The film’s opening is a tribute to early animation, with a loving imitation of the fluid style and creative visual humor of the time. The climax is a parody of a cliche Hollywood chase scene, though Hollywood chase scenes are so over-the-top that it’s hard to exaggerate them any further. The end is “yes, it’s over” (one of the few bits that depends on language and, I suppose, had to be translated for the North American release): The old heartfelt cartoons are gone, and money is in charge now. Every event in between lights the path we have taken from there to here.

The triplets stand for the quirky ways of art driven by the individual artist, rich in texture and poor in budget. The mafia stands for corporations, with boxy identical thugs who merge together (even the seemingly-cutesy character designs turn out to be detailed symbols). The Tour de France is depicted as an event started by bicycle lovers but now pushed so far by competition that the racers are overspecialized freaks who walk awkwardly. The kidnapping is corporate takeover, draining the last dregs of meaning from the event by replacing the travel with machinery.

I could go on and on about trains, Bruno the dog’s dreams, food, Europe vs. North America.... Every touch is meaningful.

Many early animated cartoons are in the public domain now. In the collection at you can see for yourself the deterioration as the wonderfully original early cartoons, made for love of a new medium, morph into baby food through the 30’s and 40’s. The Triplets of Belleville is an attempt to turn back the clock, and it’s telling that it was not popular in the U.S.


I just watched the film again, and I want to make a few more notes about the symbolism. I have to read the mouse-like mafia technician as Mickey Mouse. For me, the HOLLYFOOD photo nails the connection, and the ear covers are pretty convincing too.

Mickey Mouse means Disney. In early decades, Walt Disney was a progressive force in animation, making innovations and raising the bar in both animation technique and storytelling. Today, the Disney corporation has a reputation for high-gloss but bland and standardized family films. A technician, a skilled person who keeps the machinery running smoothly, is the perfect symbol.

Another detail I enjoyed this time around was the way that the house of Madame Souza and Champion is pushed aside and left askew by the railroad. The railroad of course symbolizes progress... and it also, like the bicycle races, symbolizes going around in circles and getting nowhere.

The movie’s technique is to draw numerous implicit connections between its various themes, and leave you to reason out any conclusions on your own. The touch is so light that I think many viewers don’t feel it at all!

Here’s one chain of associations. Food stands for money (the residents of rich Belleville are almost all obese and their state symbol seems to be the Statue of Hamburger; Madame Souza is unable to buy hamburgers without money) which is the driving force of competition (as in the hoopla around the Tour de France but also with reference to Hollyfood) which results in sameness without creativitity (consider the bicycle racers with their bulging leg muscles, but also other identical objects such as the oceangoing ships and the hamburgers) and lazy exploitation (as in the bicycle races both before and after the kidnapping). That’s why the triplets live on unappetizing food.

Another chain of associations starts with machinery, which is associated with both creativity (machines are put to many creative uses in the film) and with lack of creativity (as in the stationary bicycle race).

The film is very complex, and there are some bits I still don’t understand. For example, why is the betting audience all mafia? I haven’t found an explanation that I can convince myself of.

insights from Alexis Atherton

I received e-mail from Alexis Atherton who opened “You were spot on regarding the message of the film” and then went on to explain numerous ways in which I was not quite spot on! And pointed out important aspects that I hadn’t appreciated and subtle symbols that I hadn’t noticed. Most of what Alexis wrote seems right to me, and even the weaker points are reasonable and nothing I would argue against. The indented text below is by Alexis Atherton and is included here by permission.

I told a lady with whom I played golf the story of the movie and while giggling she responded that it sounded quintessentially French—she grew up in France and was sent to English boarding schools at a very young age. The French hold dear to the notion that culture is paramount and the nuances that comprise French culture are sacrosanct. They also hold dear the value of the individual within that culture as well as the importance of family and friendship. Where does creativity come from if not the individual? The individuals and their bonds comprise a family who are connected to others by friendship, and a society is comprised of all of those individuals and relationships. Lines on a map and a flag make a nation but cultures are the glue which holds it together.

The movie is more about passion and the importance of the bonds that we share, especially with family. I think your comments about soulless, tyrannical corporations were absolutely correct, but I think the writers were making a comment on what effect the corporate model has on a culture. At the beginning of the movie, the plot starts with the grandmother trying to find the element that will spark her grandsons’ passion: The puppy, followed the train set, and finally success with the bicycle. We see the connection of his interest and passion with the bike by the fact that his parents were shown in a seemingly happy moment in an old photograph on his wall on a bicycle—so the bicycle represents love and happiness for the young cycling grandson.

It seemed pretty clear that the story was trying to make a comment on something the French have dealt with for centuries: Bullies of one sort or another. The aristocracy and royalty, the church at times, politicians. Big business is just the new bully that is exploiting and stifling the individual, which in turn affects the family as represented by the grandson and the grandmother as well as the triplets. I like your comment about the trains and how they represent progress. In this context, it makes the dog Bruno’s experience with the trains even more comical. The fact Bruno dislikes trains so much started with the fact that the child’s attention was directed at his toy trains, and then the toy train running over his tail catalyzed his hatred of trains. The grandmother’s passion lies in the happiness of her grandchild.

I think the audience of mafia characters in the betting room was a statement on an elitist system. Compare the economist J.Stiglitz’s paraphrase of Abe Lincoln: “of the 1 percent, by the 1 percent, for the 1 percent” (his description of the current economic and political paradigm in the U.S.). In this case, it was a roomful of CEO/thugs who were the recipients of the entertainment and had all of that disposable income to throw around on betting, while exploiting the bicyclists for their entertainment. It was the new King’s court, or oligarchy, or group of pigs at the trough at the expense of the weaker, unwitting individual of the story—a tilt of the cap to George Orwell.

In the end, what remains is the Frenchman, in his latter years, sitting in the house of his grandmother with all of her baubles nearly unchanged... remaining quintessentially French. Vive la France was the statement, I believe.

In a followup, Alexis provided more details.

I watched the end again and it really was a nationalistic, pro-France statement. After the grandmother causes the thug and his henchmen to go over the bridge, the thugs explode into the air with fireworks in blue, white, and red (the colors of the French flag). The only thing that remains of the thugs, as they (grandma, grandson, triplets and Bruno) are crossing the bridge, is the French beret. It is definitely a message to the audience about what could be lost to large multinationals (like Hollywood as you stated and probably McDonald’s and Burger King and so on) whose only concern is usurping resources and increasing their bottom line.

I think I figured out that the ending where she asks the grandson if that is it, if everything is over? is a cheeky nod to the Looney Tunes ending where Porky Pig tells the audience “Th-th-th-that’s all folks!” That puts it in line with the Mickey Mouse-like character who fixes the gears.

And, I would add, with the opening homage to early animation. If Alexis is right, it compares early artistic animation with later commercial animation. It makes sense to me.

There really are a whole host of themes and hidden metaphors in this film. The fact that they don’t spell things out for you, as Hollywood often does, really makes you think.

The original version of this essay was written in February 2008.
Updated and posted here July 2008. Addendum March 2011. Alexis Atherton’s section added September 2014.