2010s, 4/4, Childrens, Martin Scorsese, Review

Hugo

Amazon.com: Hugo Poster ( 11 x 17 - 28cm x 44cm ) (Style D) (2011): Posters  & Prints

#4 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.

Both completely of Scorsese’s filmography and apart from it, Hugo is a masterful adaptation of the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick from one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers, using all of the modern tool set to create a visually lush and dense feast for the eyes matched by a wonderful emotional journey that intelligently synthesizes several different story elements into one cohesive experience. Free of guile and irony, this is Scorsese’s most earnestly heartfelt film that feels closest to his own heart. His love for the subject is infectious.

The titular character Hugo is a young boy living in the walls of Gare Montparnasse in Paris, winding the clocks in the absence of his uncle whom Hugo hasn’t seen in months. He moved in with his uncle after his father, a clockmaker with whom Hugo had a very loving relationship after the death of his mother, died in a fire at a museum. They had been working on rebuilding an automaton that Hugo’s father had found in the museum’s basement, finding parts for the intricate internal clockwork to discover what it could possible be. After his father’s death, the automaton becomes the only thing tying Hugo to his departed father, more important to him because of that emotional connection than just a curiosity.

In the train station works a wide coterie of interesting characters, and the way Hugo watches their lives play out in snippets feels like a direct callback to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The least prominent of them, Madame Emile and Monsieur Frick, are an older pair that look to find connection, but Madame Emile’s dog snaps and keeps them apart. There’s also the station inspector who yearns for the attention of the flower lady, Lisette, but can’t bring himself to even say hello because his leg injury from the war, which he needs a creaky brace for, causes him embarrassment. Lastly, there is Papa Georges, a sad old man who runs the toy shop off to the side, sitting alone most of the day as people pass his stall without notice.

Hugo needs clockwork pieces for the automaton, so Papa Georges’ stall is the ideal place to find the little gears he is trying to procure. Hugo has no money, though, so he tries to use Georges’ boredom that becomes sleepiness to sneak the implements. Caught, though, Georges takes Hugo’s notebook, written by his father and describing the efforts to fix the automaton, as punishment for Hugo’s actions, but there seems to be more to it than that. Hugo follows Georges home and discovers that he is living with a young girl his age, Isabelle. Isabelle promises to protect Hugo’s notebook from burning, and the next day Hugo proves to Georges that he is a worthwhile mechanic by fixing a toy. Georges provides Hugo an opportunity to earn his notebook back by working in the shop.

That gets all of the pieces in place for the real story to develop. Everything up to this point has been wonderful and told adeptly, but it’s as Hugo gets closer to Isabelle and discovers the hidden past of Georges that things really begin to click together. The automaton has a connection to Georges. Hugo and Isabelle finally make the final fixes on the machine, and it draws a picture of a rocket hitting the man in the moon in the eye and also signs Papa Georges’ name. The automaton being Hugo’s only connection to his father, he needs to pursue the mystery even further, thinking that it will bring him closer to his dead father. They can’t approach Papa Georges’ about the picture, so they go to his wife, Mama Jeanne.

Papa Georges, it turns out, is Georges Melies, the French filmmaking pioneer who made La Voyage dans la Lune, amongst many others. With the help of a film academic, Hugo and Isabelle are able to bring the past alive for Mama Jeanne and Papa Georges, but the past is painful. Georges was on the top of the world when he made his movies, and Mama Jeanne was his muse, but World War I ended that. Tastes changed, he had to sell his movies for the chemicals to make women’s shoes, and he’s been left with nothing of his work but a small box of drawings hidden away in his wardrobe. Seeing the drawings of the automaton was a stab to his heart, a reminder of the glories that he’d lost and the lower station he found himself in there, running a toy shop. The worst part, though, was the loss of his art. Gone forever.

What makes all of this work emotionally is how everyone’s emotional journeys are tied together. Hugo’s need for connection to his father leads him to Papa Georges. Georges’ need for artistic validation leads him to Hugo. Even the Station Inspector connecting with Lisette is tied to Georges accepting Hugo, having hunted Hugo for the whole film as being an orphan loitering in his station and caught him just as Hugo found his place. The station inspector, in front of Lisette with his hand on Hugo’s arm, has to chose between his obsession and allowing Hugo to go home. Combined with all of this comes the love for a lost art form, the silent movie.

Martin Scorsese has a long history of not only making films but of preserving them. Founding The Film Foundation in 1990, he’s been instrumental in film preservation efforts for over 30 years now. Film history is deeply important to him, and the final half of this film deals directly with one of the first great masters of the form, Melies, having lost all of his work and discovering that some percentage of it still exists. The key here, dramatically, isn’t that Scorsese is presenting something he loves, but the film ties it to the characters directly, most importantly to Hugo himself, and the love that Scorsese feels gets manifested in an infectious appreciation for the work. There’s a small montage of many of the most magical bits from Melies’ movies that the movie crescendos to, ending up as a celebration of the community that film viewing and making creates, with Hugo at the center of it.

And that is kind of amazing. The movie is a personal Dickensian journey for an orphan boy that ends up twisting his fate in with a celebration of old movies, and that celebration becomes an extension of the boy’s emotional catharsis.

The movie is an absolute joy to simply look at, as well, Scorsese completely blew his budget, making a movie that was way too expensive to ever make its money back, but you can see every dime on screen. From the beautiful shots of computer generated 1931 Paris to the massive sets with wonderful visual depth to the mass of people that populate the frame, there’s constantly a huge amount of visual information to absorb, but through all of that Scorsese is able to discretely point the audience’s eye towards what’s important. In crowd scenes, it’s easy to pinpoint Hugo, Isabelle, or the station inspector. I’ve never seen the film in 3D (despite owning the 3D Blu-ray because I don’t own a 3D television), but it’s obvious that the overall brightness and clarity of the images would combine well with the natural depth within the frame to create a very immersive effect from beginning to end.

There’s little surprise that the acting is quite good here, but the real surprise is that the acting is so good from the child actors. Chloe Grace Moritz seems to be a bit of a natural actress, but Asa Butterfield gives a surprisingly convincing performance as Hugo. His big emotional moments, like when he thinks the automaton is broken or when he’s confronting the station inspector for the final time, are quite good. The rest of the cast carries their own well, but a special note must be made for Ben Kingsley. The British professional carries the deep sadness of Melies and the quiet happiness and pride late in the film with such poise and restraint that he ends up delivering one of my favorite performances in a Scorsese film. He was such a wounded creature that I wanted him to be fixed.

And that’s kind of the central idea: people fixing each other. As Hugo fixes the automaton, so does he fix Papa Georges and Papa Georges fixes him in return.

I loved this movie. It really is one of my favorite Scorsese’s.

Rating: 4/4

2 thoughts on “Hugo”

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