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Melbourne Festival Review: Triplets of Belleville

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For those nostalgic for the quirky caricatures of the old comic book style animation that had seemingly disappeared with the arrival of CGI and massive success of Pixar, the 2003 release of Sylvain Chomet’s 2D animated comedy The Triplets of Belleville was a breath of fresh air. A co-production between companies in France, the UK, Belgium and Canada, the film tells the story of Madame Souza whose cyclist grandson Champion is kidnapped by the French mafia while competing in the Tour de France. Souza and Champion’s pet dog Bruno track the kidnappers to the fictional metropolis of Belleville, where they meet the aging divas the Triplets of Belleville, who assist in the rescue of Champion from the mafia. It was a global hit, partly due to style of animation, and, of course, to its incredible award-winning and Oscar-nominated soundtrack composed by French Canadian Benoit Charest.
 
This year’s Melbourne Festival marks the first time Charest has performed in Australia, with his ensemble Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville, joining him to recreate the original score to the film live, as it's projected across the stage. As the eight members of the orchestra take to the stage, Benoit picks up a guitar and charms the audience as he humorously introduces us to his ‘brochette’ of musicians. Tonight, Benoit informs us, his long lost little brother who was adopted by a family in New Zealand is in the audience, and the show is to be dedicated to the memory of their mother. With that, the film commences with a speakeasy scene in the days of Fred Astair, the Triplets performing as Benoit’s brochette launch into the award-winning opening number Swinging Belleville Rendezvous.
 
Throughout the film, music is a constant, setting the tone and atmosphere for each scene. Boogie-woogie style jazz is used whenever the sinister square-cut mafia henchman appear, and Benoit flits between playing various instruments and conducting the rest of the orchestra as we're treated to a range of musical styles, from toe-tapping hot jazz, to the atmospheric sounds of the piano accordion. Not all the instruments are traditional. In the centre of the stage, there's a rigged up bicycle. When Madame Souza commences playing a bike wheel and spokes as a drum kit, the percussionist on stage follows suit. In the film, it's at this point that the triplets appear from nowhere to join in with Madame Souza, likewise onstage, Benoit and two other musicians mimic the roles of the triplets, clapping, dancing and converging on the percussionist. Later on, the musicians mimic another performance by the triplets where their instruments include a vacuum cleaner, pots and pans, fridge shelves, and, best of all, a newspaper.
 
The inventiveness of the score is something to behold, and the musicians revel in using these bizarre instruments, laughing and dancing as they do so. This isn't some button-downed ensemble taking themselves far too seriously, this is a group of showmen having a whole lot of fun, and it's infectious to watch. As the credits roll up, we are treated once again to the full orchestra closing out the evening with another symphonic rendition of Singing Belleville Rendezvous. A superb, charming performance to match a delightfully quirky film
 
By Eben Rojter