The United States of Belleville
Back in December 2016, the gilt lobby of Trump Tower became the visual center of American power. Cameras followed the comings and goings of mostly middle-aged and older men amid a large plainclothes security detail.
These images stuck with me for a reason: the men in Donald Trump’s orbit—longtime cronies, legal counsel, crony-legal counsel hybrids, and of course the Secret Service and ancillary bodyguards—wore overcoats. And not just any overcoats but overcoats with the look of the early nineties—long, wide shoulders, ill-fitting by design. Klatches of these coats seemed to linger in every alcove, and even civilian journalists in their North Face jackets couldn’t dilute the mood.
The impending presidency was ominous, but the lobby overcoat tableau seemed even more so. It took me a while to figure out why, but it eventually hit me: the scene suggested the decadent metropolis in The Triplets of Belleville, the 2003 animated comedy written and directed by Sylvain Chomet.
Chomet’s film received global praise and an Oscar nomination, even though there was no disguising that the Belleville to where our French heroes are led by mobsters is the U.S. of A. The film is brilliant, hilarious, brutal, and unnerving. It’s also cynical in its sinister portrait of the land of the free, where everyone save for the old lady triplets seems to be obese.
The supersize Statue of Liberty in the harbor holds up an ice cream cone in her right hand and displays a hamburger on the book in her left—like someone at the all-you-can-eat buffet balancing multiple plates to avoid having to walk back for refills.
The counter woman who offers our granny heroine a HAMBURGER lunges with the smiling teeth of Thomas Nast’s Tammany Tiger by way of Max Beckmann. The singing sister act of the title lives in near poverty in an urban no-man’s-land reminiscent of South Bronx lots in the 1980s. For food, they dynamite skinny frogs out of a pond.
The real jolt is how the mafia in their black suits and boxy overcoats (like moving coffins) run the city. And their leader is a clown. There are plenty of fat tourists on the streets but no police in sight. It’s a steroid mashup of twenties Berlin and The Untouchables. The drawings, particularly those of the denizens of Belleville, are haunting, with a menacing look that stems from a continental style of political cartooning that goes back to the Weimar caricatures of George Grosz.
The left-leaning culture of Western Europe has long satirized the grotesque elements of American capitalism and perceived war-mongering. Democrats and some to their left have long taken this criticism with a pinch of salt. Oh, it’s only certain Republicans who are like that—the outliers.
But in November 2016, everything changed. A year into this American presidency, Chomet’s biting caricature of our country is alarmingly prescient.
Donald Trump is the apotheosis of the physical attributes and mannerisms Grosz exaggerated to depict moral rot in the decade before Hitler came to power. Our president is one pound shy of obese, he gorges on red meat and HAMBURGERS, he lies about his height, he makes his skin orange, his hairstyle is 100% artifice, he wears absurdly long ties and tractor caps with suits.
But that’s just the icing. The racism, the degradation of women, the foul mouth, the tacky shysterism, the pride in bullying and thuggery. And at the core a rabid capitalist with no ethics and an insatiable desire for power.
Since moving to Washington and being viewed on the sanitized stage of the presidential tarmac, Trump has scrubbed his act of the tawdry gilt and the skulking overcoats of those transition weeks. But as the Mueller investigation progresses, we’re seeing the metaphorical overcoats reappear with Congressional Republicans doing the president’s dirty work to subvert justice. And with the Rob Porter imbroglio, you need not even strain for metaphor: If you’re a thug, of course you want a bodyguard who beat his wives.
Chomet’s film drew inspiration from Dada and the surrealists to show a metropolis without morals, a place where a mafia boss can run a racket that kidnaps athletes, works them to near-death, and then shoots them when they fall. What made Chomet’s caricature of American culture so funny in 2003 was its outlandishness.
Fifteen years later, it’s harder to laugh—especially when you consider that The Triplets of Belleville lost out on the Oscar to Finding Nemo. “Fish are friends, not food.” Yeah, right. We have nothing to worry about. §