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Film Review: Hugo

Hugo (2011; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Old-fashioned but modern, creaky but oddly magical, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a lot like the clockwork boy-shaped automaton that features prominently in the film (and no, I don’t mean its young lead Asa Butterfield, who plays the eponymous orphan). Inherited from his late father (Jude Law), the automaton obsesses Hugo Cabret as he busies himself within the service-corridor bowels of Paris’ Gare Montparnasse, keeping the train station’s clocks running on time at some point in the 1930s (or perhaps earlier, if wink-nudge cameos by James Joyce and Django Reinhardt are any indication). He comes to believe that, if he can only get it working, the automaton will impart some legacy message from his father. Although it finally does (in a way), Hugo’s effort of tinkering, the attempt to fix the machine, brings him closer to the essence of his father, to whatever lessons about living and questions of his personal identity are linked to his departed patriarchal model.

The automaton’s secret proves to have meaning for Hugo, but if that secret belongs to anyone, it is Georges (Ben Kingsley), an older gentleman who runs a toy shop in the station. Georges catches Hugo trying to steal from him and confiscates a notebook of sketches of the automaton which is strangely familiar to him; neither the old man or the boy will reveal what the notebook means to them and so inaugurate a stand-off of plot conflict. Detente is accomplished gradually by George’s goddaughter and charge Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a ravenous reader with a precocious vocabulary who befriends Hugo and helps him to uncover the automaton’s meaning as well as Papa Georges’ bitterly hidden past.

This is a basic synopsis of Hugo, but it doesn’t come close to getting at the film’s enchanting design, its reverent romanticism, nor its inborn ungainliness. It isn’t that Scorsese puts a foot wrong, exactly; he’s far too capable and meticulous a cinematic craftsman for that. It’s just that Hugo, a family-oriented gilded fantasy with broad themes of generous humanism, isn’t the pair of shoes that he usually slips on, and he stumbles over the occasional curb as a result. It’s Martin Scorsese’s Spielberg picture, and if his studious observational approach allows him to evade Spielberg’s weakness for mawkish swells then it alienates him ever so slightly from a sense of earned wonder as well.

Scorsese’s approach trajectory is set in Hugo‘s earliest moments. Clockwork machine gears dissolve into a bird’s eye panorama of the Paris skyline, with a central cog superimposed in the cut with L’Arc de Triomphe with the boulevards running away from it like the spokes of a wheel. The whole city, indeed all of the human race, is a complex machine built with a specific purpose, a visual metaphor that is plainly stated later in the film. A long CGI-assisted 3D tracking shot pushes into Gare Montparnasse, along its platforms, through its concourse, settling at last upon Hugo, peering out through the number 4 in a clockface at the bustling life of the station. Scorsese cannot disguise his affection for this image of isolated voyeurism, be it through the clocks and grates of the station or in the seats of a movie theater, and returns to it often. This is almost certainly because it was his own introduction to the wider world, as a sickly asthmatic boy in Manhattan’s Little Italy of the 1950s, viewing the lively, often harsh action of the streets through his window as well as being inculcated into the transporting gloss of the movies.

Scorsese’s oeuvre is so intensely identified with the lyrically brutal realism of his seminal classics of the 1970s like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and similarly-pitched later work like Goodfellas and The Departed that it’s easy to overlook the romantic streak that has crept into his mature work (and, really, has been there all along, in a highly sublimated form). That streak is impossible to overlook in Hugo, which is set in a twinkling bobble version of interwar Paris in which even the ridiculous but strict Station Inspector (an awkwardly loquacious Sacha Baron Cohen) who bundles unescorted urchins off to the orphanage is more of a figure of comic relief than of menace, and is clearly owed a telegraphed epiphany and redemption before the credits (his Doberman, Maximilian, steals most of his scenes from him anyway).

Scorsese retains much of the background colour of the station from the source material, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, including a kindly bookseller (fondly embodied by Christopher Lee) who lends Isabelle books to read, the flower vendor (Emily Mortimer) that Cohen’s Inspector has a crush on, and a tentative potential older couple (Frances de la Tour and Richard Griffiths) seemingly kept apart only by the lady’s ornery Dachshund. Scorsese knows enough of filmmaking to stage these comic sideline vignettes perfectly competently, but some essential verve always seems to be missing. Again, the unfamiliar pair of shoes.

Really, though, Hugo is a fine example of that hoary old Hollywood auteur anachronism, A Love Letter to the Cinema. Although the film treats the revelation as a key twist because it must, it’s pretty clear early on that Kingsley’s toymaker is really George Méliès, the legendary French film trickster commonly considered the Hugofather of movie special effects as well as the science fiction and fantasy genres. Despite making over 500 films and innovating countless techniques that are now foundational to filmmaking (including dissolves, such as the one which opens the film), Méliès was forced by changing circumstances (and competitive pressure, much of it from Thomas Edison) to quit making films, close his studio, and even sell most of his film negatives to be melted down into chemicals to make the heels of shoes (our analogy comes full circle). Kingsley plays Méliès as bitter and repressed about this thwarted past of magic-making, and only Hugo’s love of his films and the automaton (also of Méliès’ making) in connection with the memory of his own father can draw the old master back to the world and to an appreciation of what he accomplished.

Scorsese shows Méliès’ famous film A Trip to the Moon in its broad strokes if not quite in its entirety, and shamelessly intercuts its fantastical trickery with the wonderstruck faces of Hugo and Isabelle as they view it. He lovingly recreates Méliès’ behind-the-scenes process of shooting his films, which he wrote, directed, set-designed, and starred in like a true silent-film jack-of-all-trades (and which he was used to doing in his previous career on the stage). In short, he gets religion as regards the wondrous enchatment of the cinema in a way that he’s never really allowed himself to do before.

This opening up to cinematic romanticism is clearly some species of important personal breakthrough for Scorsese, as noted by his longtime critical supporter and personal friend Roger Ebert in his review of Hugo. This emotional unlocking (one can picture Scorsese himself as the automaton, waiting for a heart-shaped key to release his secret self) is evident in the film, and is endearing and even touching in its way, which may go some way to explain Hugo‘s wildly disproportionate haul of Oscar nominations in its year of release. “He’s got heart, too!” gushed the older, more conservative, more sensitive Academy voters (who were then baffled and threatened by his incandescent satire of bootstraps-up American capitalism, The Wolf of Wall Street, immediately afterwards).

If Hugo is an important, personal work for Scorsese, it feels churlish to nitpick its foibles (like how unimportant it feels next to his more adult-themed other films). But he’s not wholly at home in this world, and he’s not the only one: some of the actors struggle to pinpoint the correct wistful glowing tone, and Moretz in particular turns in an arch and inelegant performance of off-putting terribleness. There’s also a strong note of cold determinism in the resolution of its key themes that betrays their distance from his experiences: Scorsese’s characters, often Italian-Americans and Roman Catholics, struggle with the guilt of things they never feel they deserve, and in Hugo, all that is deserved by anyone is already theirs by meticulous design, and all they must do is quest to discover it.

Scorsese emphasizes the clockwork elements of Hugo as well as of Méliès’ films because that’s what he sees in his own inclinations that is most common with them, a technical challenge that he feels comfortable with (many directors could claim to have been influenced by Méliès, but there are few I’d be less likely to believe were influence by him than Martin Scorsese). He understands just how to generate the enchanted dreams of Méliès (and the psychologically revealing dreams of Hugo, a metaphorical device that Scorsese has become quite adept at), but he can’t make us feel them in the same way because he himself doesn’t really feel them with anything beyond a film-school appreciativeness. It’s a ghost he can summon with alacrity, but knows not what to ask of. The heart-shaped key to this particular automaton doesn’t reveal as much as we thought it might, as it turns out.

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