Tim here, to celebrate National Bike to Work Week in the only way I possibly could. Because when it comes to animated movies about bikes, there's nothing that can top 2003's The Triplets of Belleville, Sylvain Chomet's lightly mocking love letter to the most quintessential elements of French and American culture. Wine and frog-eating on the one side, obesity and urban rudeness on the other, and most importantly for our current purposes, the Tour de France, the most famous bike race in the world.
The bubbly, convoluted story pivots on Champion, raised by his grandmother, whose only interest as a lonely child was in biking. This translates, years later, into his competition in the Tour, from which he's kidnapped by the French mafia as part of their underground gambling ring, from which his grandmother can only rescue him with the help of a trio of elderly cabaret performers. I said "convoluted", right? Because that's a nice word to describe how random and weird Triplets of Belleville can be in its pileup of absurd plot developments. But also, always, delightful and beguiling.
Chomet's tribute to the bike culture in France is, like everything else, predicated on outrageous grotesquerie: in a movie where the entire cast have impossible, distorted body shapes, Champion himself is one of the most extreme examples.
It only takes one glance at his rail-thin body and enormous legs to grasp that this is what a lifetime of single-minded dedication to competitive bike-riding looks like. It might seem like a nasty-minded commentary on athletes destroying their bodies, except that the whole film is based on exaggerated caricature; we could just as easily say that Champion's malformed body is the expression of a soul-consuming passion that's so important to him that he doesn't even realize when the mafia has him chained in front of a movie screen, biking on an endless loop.
That went and got a little nihilistic on me, so let me switch tracks over to the film's other big biking-related sequence: the Tour de France itself, a beautiful little parody of the over-the-top, carnivalesque enthusiasm that crops up when a small town has a great big national event to celebrate, going out of its way to realign everything around this one chance to shine.
And on the more generous side of things, the film also shows off the undulating beauty of its animated countryside, a tribute to the landscape of France that wonderfully shows off the justification for having an internationally well-known biking tour all throughout that country in the first place. The films resting state is to be sardonic as all hell, as often as possible, but it doesn't lack for heart, or even a kind of sentimental affection for the textures of rural France.
The fair concession to make is that The Triplets of Belleville isn't really "about" biking in any sustained way; it's not about any one thing at all. But those things it chooses to glance at get treated with quite a lot of imagination and flair. This might not be cinema's most probing, deep consideration of bikes and the Tour de France, but it's certainly one of the most memorable.