There is a lot to like about Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s homage to Georges Méliès and the early days of cinema. If only I hadn’t seen The Artist before writing this piece, I might have liked it even more, because Michel Hazanavicius, a relatively unknown director until now, has the magic touch that Scorsese admires but cannot attain. I’ll leave discussion of The Artist to another week, but the strength of that film is its ability to immerse the viewer in the cinematic illusion. Hugo, regardless of its 11 Academy Award nominations, often feels like a disguised documentary put together by an expert technician.
Scorsese, who reputedly spent $170 million on Hugo, has created an entertaining, brittle artifice which has a lot in common with the mechanical devices that play such a starring role, setting up a relentless metaphor of ‘man as machine’. The 3D effects only add to that pervasive artificiality.
The story, set in the 1920s-30s, concerns 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives at a Parisian railway station, where he winds the clocks. The job really belongs to his drunken uncle who has disappeared, so he keeps out-of-sight, living on pilfered croissants. His secret project is to reanimate an automaton – a mechanical figure salvaged from the attic of a museum by his late father. He steals the necessary spare parts from the station toy store operated by the elderly Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley).
One day he is caught by the shop-owner, who confiscates his note-book. In order to get it back, Hugo enlists the aid of Isabelle, Georges’s niece, (Chloë Grace Moretz) who is eager for “an adventure”. All the action eventuates from Hugo’s frantic efforts to avoid Gustave the Station Inspector, played for laughs by Sacha Baron Cohen, but the ‘adventure’ itself takes an unexpected turn. It transpires that Isabelle’s uncle is none other than Georges Méliès, the famous pioneer of the cinema. He is now a poor, forgotten man who hates to think back on those days when he turned out short masterpieces such as A Trip to the Moon (1902), and The Impossible Voyage (1904).
Georges knows about Hugo’s automaton, and his own reanimation is obliquely dependant on that of the mechanical figure. As this is really a fairy tale, one realises from the beginning that it will have a happy ending. Only in the days of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, did fairy tales culminate in disaster, and Hollywood has always been phobic about finishing a film on a downbeat.
This is, however, one of the abiding problems with Hugo: it is as predictable as clockwork. All the fun of the film comes from the 3D effects, the chase sequences, and occasional clips from original movies by Méliès and other early directors. Scorsese’s love of these films is palpable, but they sit oddly within this big-budget feature, set in a caricatural Paris in which everyone speaks English and acts like a stereotype. It’s not as cynical as Midnight in Paris, but it is still a version of the city tailored for American expectations.
Hugo and Isabelle are both cute kids, perhaps too cute for comfort. Hugo is not an actors’ film at all, and despite the dazzling special effects, this makes it less involving for the viewer. Ultimately we respond to stories, to dialogue, not to expensive whizz-bangery.
The story is not as far-fetched as it seems, as a broken Georges Méliès did end up scratching out a living selling sweets and toys at the Gare de Montparnasse in the 1920s. He was rescued from this ignominous fate by French cinephiles who staged a gala retrospective of his work. Unfortunately this final taste of glory did little to restore his fortunes.
Scorsese’s feature, based on an innovative graphic novel by Brian Selznick, is essentially a children’s film with enough adult touches to keep the grown-ups alert. Beyond the story of Hugo, the street-wise urchin, the tale is dominated by the figure of Méliès, the stage magician who built his own camera after watching a presentation by the Lumiere brothers. His life was the classic rags-to-riches-to-rags saga. What was truly amazing were the elaborate sets and costumes that Méliès created in order to dazzle his audiences.
Like no-one before, Méliès was aware of the full gamut of possibilities that the cinema allowed. He is the ancestor of every great maker of spectacles, from D.W.Griffith to James Cameron, and it is touching to see how diligently Scorsese recreates his greenhouse-style studio. For a moment we are transported back into the inspired chaos of a typical shoot. Taking us behind the scenes of Méliès’s pantomime illusions Scorsese pays a sincere tribute to a showman who devised many techniques that would become staples of the film-maker’s trade. We recognise that Méliès is not simply Isabelle’s Papa Georges, he is great-granddaddy to Scorsese and all of his peers who have never lost their passion for that world on a screen.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, February 4, 2012
Hugo, USA, Rated PG. 126 minutes