dir: Martin Scorsese
With delight, I watched this, with great delight in my heart.
If you’re reading this review, you know that I watch a lot of films, and a lot of them I even review. Those reviews, you would know, are to my benefit and to your detriment as a reader. I’m sorry about that. Really, I am. I wish I were a better reviewer; someone who could encapsulate succinctly and with wit what is great and what is less great about certain movies in this artistic medium I prize the most, after literature, puppetry and the accordion, of course. And I wish I could say it all without having to resort to the boring bullshit a billion other (paid) bunglers routinely trot out to justify their verbosity.
No, honestly, I wish I were a better reviewer, so that I could credibly explain why I loved Hugo so much, so that you, too, could feel the joy that I felt, and get a glimpse of how it felt to watch it. Yes, even cynical old me feels joy whilst watching a film, very rarely, but it happens. Aiming that high dooms any enterprise to failure, no doubt, but it should be perfectly obvious that failing at something doesn’t stop me from doing it. Au contraire, to get into the vernacular of it, au contraire, mes amis.
Hugo is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, and it should come as no surprise that this film is about a boy called Hugo who lives in the Gare Montparnasse train station, in the 1930s. He doesn’t just hang out there, dodging the dogged and limping local constable (Sacha Baron Cohen), and trying to eke out a meagre existence by stealing: he literally lives within the walls and towers of the train station, keeping the clocks running on time.
Being an orphaned urchin, he, being the actor playing Hugo, who is called Asa Butterfield, is a particularly Dickensian embodiment. He has eyes, the lightest of blue, soulful eyes, that are meant to recall the films of a long ago era. He has eyes so particular that I have to think Scorsese cast him just for Those Eyes, because you could tell they are the blue eyes of an orphan even if you were watching him in a black and white movie from the silent era of film.
This isn’t, let’s be modest, the only reference to the origins of the cinematic art form to be displayed here. In fact, it’s safe to say that the whole film is an homage to that era, to ancient films, to all films, and to one of the first magicians of cinema, being Georges Méliès.
You may not know who Georges was, or what he did, or why you should care, but if you’ve ever seen the ancient image of a rocket ship flying into the moon, with a man’s face looking out of it presumably covered in whipped cream, chagrined because of the rocket in his eye, well then, you’ve just seen one of the earliest images ever committed to film. It’s from 1902, from a film called A Trip to the Moon. 1902! Wrap your head around that. But that's not even the oldest flick they show.
Who cares, you could argue. I don’t give a damn about history. Give me something to entertain me now, dagnabbit! I paid my hard earned and bought a bladder-rupturing 10 litre soda and five kilo tub of popped corn. Entertain me, don’t educate me. Give me something to care about, or at least some tits and explosions. Soon, before I start thinking about stuff.
Well, our poor little orphan is a boy on a mission. He is trying to survive, trying to keep the clocks running, and trying to finish repairs on something his father (Jude Law) left behind, before he tragically died while trying to load a crack pipe and have sex with three Parisian working girls at the same time.
That something is a special machine.
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What’s special about it? He doesn’t know. What’s it going to do when he finishes fixing it? He’s not sure. What’s he going to have for dinner? Probably a stolen croissant if he’s lucky. But he believes, deep down in his heart, that within the machinations of this fearsome automaton, which looks very reminiscent of the famous image/robot/ Evil Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, is some message from his father, to him.
He is missing one additional cog or coiled part, and a special, heart-shaped key.
Even amidst the tense misery of his hand-to-mouth existence, he gets to observe the lives of other people within the station, and he comes to the belief that all people, like all machines, can be fixed with the right amount of tender loving care, and that everything within Creation, not just within the station, is part of a perfect whole, and, as such, nothing is fatally missing, and nothing is supernumerary or surplus, like every part of a working machine. As such, everyone and every thing has a purpose.
Hugo’s very existence seems to have the purpose of provoking tears and that heartachey feeling you get from looking at a puppy cradling an even more adorable kitten, but there’s steel in the boy’s spine. Because of his destitute circumstances, he steals stuff to repair his automaton, which brings him into conflict with the stern owner of a toy shop from which he tries to lift a mechanical wonder. The angry owner feels rightly miffed at this little brat’s light fingers, and wants to exact revenge upon him. Hugo may get teary, but he turns the full force of those lambent, spotlight eyes onto the old man, expecting him to eventually fold.
But fold he does not. Not only that, but the old, embittered bastard (played ever so well by Sir Ben Kingsley) takes from Hugo probably the only thing he possesses of value, being his departed father’s notebook. Hugo can’t complete his great work without it, and so tries asking repeatedly to get it back.
This brings him to the attention of the old man’s goddaughter, being Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who seems to be starving both for attention and for the company of children. Her parents are gone as thoroughly as Hugo’s are, and her aged guardians, being her godfather and godmother, clearly don’t belong to a mother’s group or play circle. She sees in Hugo the opportunity for a grand adventure, like the ones she reads in the books Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee, in surely his last film?) loans to her.
Their task is to solve the mystery of the automaton, but then it leads to an even greater mystery, not in terms of the solution of his or her identity, but why they created it in the first place. And why such a person would discard all evidence of his inventions.
Gare Montparnasse, the station itself, which is Hugo’s world, is like nothing that exists today, or probably ever existed, and it is rendered and depicted as no-one else has or ever wanted to. Every time we see the City of Light depicted, we see different peoples’ takes on it, of which there are legion, but this is one of the visually loveliest I’ve ever seen. Visually it’s as potent, as arresting as the vision Baz Lurhmann achieved with Moulin Rouge!, which is the element of the film I’ve never been able to find fault with.
Just looking at Paris, through the clock window, as Hugo gazes over that beautiful yet motherless/fatherless city, was enough to enlarge my heart. Scorsese makes it look so fulsome, so real, so graspable that I felt like I could fall through the screen.
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What possessed Scorsese to make this cinematic 3D marvel… no-one has bothered making something like this – like this - before. 3D’s purpose in its modern phase thus far has been to deliver a visual experience slightly more annoying than the one we usually get, to little benefit. Hugo, if it’s main purpose is to honour one of the fathers of cinema and of cinematic special effects, who brought the stuff of dreams to life before humanity’s eyes, has done so by using the latest special effects possible. It makes sense that it was intended from the start to be in 3D, which perversely is used best for the ‘mundane’ parts of the film moreso than anything climatic or action-based, unlike any other flick you care to think of or mention.
It’s the sweeping, swooning long takes zooming through the mechanical, steaming world that Hugo lives in; the anatomy, the circulation of the station itself that the camera takes us through. Scorsese wanted us to see into and through something we couldn’t see otherwise, and I very much feel he succeeded. Sure, this story itself, of poor noble orphans, stern authority figures with hearts of gold and machines that teach us to be human, seems to be constructed from dozens of stories and dozens of films, but it’s in the service of something greater.
Couldn’t you argue, on the other hand, that that’s the point? And even if I allowed for that, which I don’t, Hugo himself is such a wonderful character, and so well played by a decent child actor that everything ‘old’ felt new again, for me, through his eyes. He is ably supported by Chloe Moretz, who seems to be having the greatest career a girl her age, or any age, for that matter, could ever have hoped for.
There are plenty of other performances that enhance the flick. You could argue that Sacha Baron Cohen, best known for his Ali G and Borat characters, is comic relief more than anything else, but he handles it really well, and even gets a pivotal role in determining Hugo’s future. Michael Stuhlbarg, best known perhaps for the main role in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man and for the character of Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire, is fine as film historian Rene Tabard. Sure, he lets his beard do most of the work, but he is as instrumental to the film’s denouement as anyone else, and he gives the children (and therefore us) a light and sweet lesson in film history.
It might be Hugo’s story, but there’s so much else going on, so much so that Hugo is not just a passenger in his own story. He’s driving the enterprise, and if the destination seems to be somewhere different from where we thought we’d end up, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Only for that tale alone, the film would have been good enough, but the additional elements about the pioneers of cinema and the films of Georges Méliès, are the gigantic cherries on top of an already lavish dessert. The scenes depicting the old magician at work, creating his elaborate tableauxes, transforming the language of imagination into the language of cinema, were as much a joy to behold as it was to see Hugo find and exercise his purpose in life.
And for this I am very grateful.
9 times my violent dreams rarely reference 1895 train crashes or Django Rheinhart performing his gypsy jazz, which is why my dreams are inferior to Hugo out of 10
“Come dream with me.” – Hugo