The films of Sylvain Chomet

Aliya looks back at animator and filmmaker Sylvain Chomet's magnificent movies, including Belleville Rendezvous and The Illusionist...

Movies are made about all kinds of love. Ripley defends Newt because of maternal love, and Zhivago writes a poem for Lara in the grip of passionate love. Love bridges the generations between Harold and Maude, and makes Stitch come back to save Lilo.  

There aren’t many films about the mundane love we feel every day for our families and the people that surround us, but Sylvain Chomet has made four beautiful films on that subject, and on the responsibility that comes with it. They are quiet, detailed, sometimes strange, always emotionally affecting films, ranging from five minutes to 80 minutes in length, but all four find their way into your memory and, at unexpected moments, make you remember them, and smile.

Chomet was born near Paris in 1963, and began his career as an animator in London, working initially on commercials and also in the field of writing for comics. In 1991 he began work on his first animated short film, The Old Lady And The Pigeons. He finished it in 1996, after difficulties in procuring funds, and it won a number of international awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short Film.

The Old Lady And The Pigeons is a hand-drawn tale of a skinny Parisian Gendarme who’s desperate for a good meal. He notices a small old lady feeding the local pigeons on amazing cakes, and so hatches a plan to get her to feed him too. Yes, the plan does involve a large pigeon costume.

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The old lady takes her responsibilities to the pigeons very seriously. She loves them, but there’s one thing in the world that she loves more, and the Gendarme is going to be placed in a very dangerous situation when he finds out what that is. It’s a funny, surreal film, with eyebrows firmly arched at the everyday behaviour of people. The characters are absolutely recognisable, so much so that dialogue is not necessary; this is a key element of all Chomet’s films. There are very few, if any, words – all you need to know comes from the expressions, and also from the movements of the characters. Their body language is a delight to watch.

In 2003 Chomet’s first full-length animated film was released, and it expanded on his themes to make a warm, charming examination of the love of a grandmother for a grandson who is obsessed with bicycles. She helps him to train for the Tour De France, but when he realises his dream and competes he is kidnapped for a nefarious purpose, and the grandmother sets out to find him. Belleville Rendezvous shows the care, worry and determination that the Grandmother feels, and it overrides all other concerns. Even when she ends up in strange circumstances, relying on a family of aged triplets who were once singing stars to retrieve her grandson, she sticks to her guns. She’s amazing.

But for me the best elements of Belleville Rendezvous are twofold: the music, and the dog. There may be no dialogue, but there is a great soundtrack that entertains and suits the bizarre behaviour of the triplets’ characters in particular. And Bruno the dog, the beloved pet of the Grandmother, is a perfect creation of dogginess. He’s as much of a character as any of the humans. The brilliant representation of Bruno reminds me of the fact that Jacques Tati, the French mime, actor and filmmaker, apparently preferred dogs over people; they appear in his film Mon Oncle, and he followed them around for days, observing them, trying to capture their naturalism. I think he would have loved Bruno. Chomet’s connection to Tati became obvious in his next full-length film, but before that he directed a five minute film, using real actors and the setting of the Eiffel Tower and its vicinity, for the collaborative piece Paris, je t’aime in 2006.

Paris, je t’aime is a collection of short films about the love people experience in Paris, based in different arrondissements of the city. The Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Wes Craven, Tom Tykwer, and Gerard Depardieu also contributed as directors, and actors involved included Steve Buscemi, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, Bob Hoskins, Rufus Sewell, and Natalie Portman. There’s a huge amount of talent on show, and shots of Paris between each film helps to link everything so it doesn’t feel too patchy.

Chomet’s story is wonderful. A lonely mime walks through the streets, hoping to meet someone special, but only succeeding in annoying people. He’s an adorable mime but I can see how he can get on people’s nerves. Anyway, eventually he annoys the wrong people, and ends up in prison, which is where he meets… I won’t spoil it, but it’s good enough to restore your faith in true love. It’s not a deep piece, but it gives you a warm glow, and it shows that Chomet can translate his ideas in live action as well as in animation.

Back to Tati for The Illusionist (2010). Chomet’s second full-length animated feature concerns a tired-looking stage musician who is fast becoming obsolete in the face of rock music and cinema. Based on a script Tati wrote for his daughter, the main character of the film is Tati as we see him in films such as Mon Oncle and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. At one point the illusionist walks into a cinema and Mon Oncle is playing in the background.

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So this is a homage to Tati, in which the illusionist takes a job in Scotland and attracts the adoration of a local girl who dreams of travel, fancy clothes, high heels, and someone to take her away from her rural existence. She follows the illusionist when he leaves her village, and ends up in Edinburgh with him. He accepts her presence and tries to give her the things she wants. It’s not a story of romantic love, but they do love each other, and become a family for a short while. But, alas, everyone has to learn eventually that magic doesn’t exist.

I find The Illusionist to be a very sad film. The main character takes on this vast weight of responsibility for a girl because he cares for her, and he works so hard for her, but at least he is no longer alone. The other travelling acts that we meet – the clown, the ventriloquist – are so lonely and desperate. And yet there’s something endearing about their desperation. They are a family too, living under the roof of the cheap boarding house in Edinburgh, even if they don’t realise it. The Illusionist contains a depth of emotion that has perhaps been missing from Chomet’s earlier works, but it doesn’t lose any of the delight in the grotesque and recognisable characters that he creates.

Chomet’s next film will be Attila Marcel, which has just been screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a live action story of a boy who is raised by a pair of aunts in Paris after his parents’ death, and becomes a piano accompanist.  This sounds like traditional Chomet territory. I’m really looking forward to seeing how his theme of the responsibilities and duties that come with love has evolved. But, for now, I can always revisit Bruno the dog, or the lovelorn mime, or the pigeon-loving old lady, or even the brutal bunny in The Illusionist who is not keen on being pulled out of hats. There are so many great details in Chomet’s films that they deserved to be watched again and again.

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