Tricycles, Bicycles, Life Cycles: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Childhood Loss and Transgenerational Parenting in Les Triplettes De Belleville (2003)1

By Chômet, Sylvain | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Tricycles, Bicycles, Life Cycles: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Childhood Loss and Transgenerational Parenting in Les Triplettes De Belleville (2003)1


Chômet, Sylvain, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


Alexander Stein, 80 Fifth Avenue, Suite 901, New York, NY 10011, USA - psykhe@att.net

Les triplettes de Belleville [alternate title: Belleville rendez-vous; English title: The triplets of Belleville] is a work of whimsical originality, and a tour de force of feature-length animated filmmaking. Chômet's cinematic palette interweaves audiovisual and narrative inventiveness with technical bravura. Together, these elements are informed by a wide range of sociohistorical, cultural, and aesthetic influences, as various as Betty Boop, Jacques Tati, and European comic books, the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, the early animation pioneer Winsor McCay, Disney, Czech animator Karel Zeman, Terry Gilliam, Nick Park, as well as musical referents including Mozart, J. S. Bach, Django Reinhardt, the Andrews Sisters, Fred Astaire, and Josephine Baker.

Many interpretive avenues are suggested by the phantasmagorical kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, characters, and implausible events. This ambiguity is amplified by a lack of dialogue, and the medium of animation itself, which by its nature lends itself to depictions of sur- and hyperreality. Film in general, but animation in particular, is uniquely felicitous in visually representing distortions of time, the attendant effects of the aging process, and behavior or actions otherwise physically impossible. This film exaggerates and parodies conventions of masculinity and femininity: in this world, men are presented mostly as simpering, ineffectual fops, who are also either submissive and impotent, or aggressive and domineering louts. Women, conversely, are mostly idealized, larger-than-life, seemingly all-powerful and indomitable. This could be superficially understood on the level of social commentary, addressing caricatures of culture, class, ageism, gender, and Franco-American nationalism. As becomes discernible, however, these are distorted and attenuated renderings, core characteristics which have been hyperbolized, as in many dreams, in the service of a wish or some other intrapsychic motive.

It is from the perspective of a dream, where entwining themes unfold and events occur in ways possible only in the unconscious, that the film can be most profitably approached. I will utilize the idea of film-as-dream to shed light on what I view as the primary theme here: the impact of loss and affiliated concerns of mourning and melancholia on developmental processes at varying stages in the life cycle. These are elaborated here in the context of a work of animated cinema and its fictional characterizations, rather than clinical case material.

When considered as multiply condensed, distorted and intersecting overlays of the wishes, fantasies, strivings and conflicts of the main protagonists, a larger mosaic emerges in which component themes of loss, longing, growth, development, decay and reparation emerge. No single voice is dominant-there is a near absence of spoken language, and only a few snippets of barely intelligible dialogue. As in fathoming the latent content of any dream, we are not confined to representations of any single personage, gender, time, place, or even species. The surreal narrative of the film qua dream work is conveyed by fantastical imagery, symbolic allusion and non-verbal signifiers.

First, a brief synopsis-the manifest material. An orphaned boy named Champion is raised by his grandmother, Madame Souza. Her gift of a tricycle catalyzes a passion for cycle-racing that becomes the centerpiece of their life together. Fastforwarding to early adulthood, and after years of relentless training-throughout which the elderly, astigmatic and club-footed Grandma improbably serves as her grandson's trainer-Champion comes into his name and becomes a world-class bike racer. When he and a pair of other top competitors are abducted by a pair of sinister thugs during the Tour de France, Mme Souza sets off to rescue her beloved grandson with the help of Bruno, their fat old dog.

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