Hugo: Scorsese's Magnificent Dream Machine
Turning from violent men to a poignant waif, the director pays luminous tribute to old films—in his best new film of the millennium.
By Richard Corliss
November 22, 2011
Martin Scorsese made his rep as the fierce bard of American gangster machismo; from Mean Streets to The Departed he has sung the body choleric. (And, in his last feature film, Shutter Island, the mind chaotic.) So why would he make a movie of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s rhapsodically nostalgic children’s book?
Scorsese hasn’t put a kid at the center of one of his movies since the 1974 Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, with another 11-year-old (Alfred Lutter’s Tommy). But that boy felt suffocated by his single mom’s demanding love; he suffered from a surfeit of parenting. Hugo has no parent: he was orphaned after his beloved father (Jude Law) died in a fire. His dad had been repairing a mysterious automaton, and Hugo needs to connect with him by finishing the job. As Scorsese has said, “It’s a story about the boy and his relationship with his dead father.” The living take up the work of the dead and, by completing it, justify and fulfill their joint labors.
The child is also fascinated by mechanical marvels like clocks, metal robots and moving pictures. Hugo has a staunch sibling in Scorsese, a life-long lover and preserver of classic films. The 69-year-old director has never lost his infant wonder at the spectacle of giant images in a darkened movie palace. From his earliest movie memories comes a film evoking the very earliest films: the Lumière brothers’ 1896 Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, which so startled audiences with its immediacy that it can be called the first horror film, and Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon, the legendary early fantasy film, in which a spaceship from Earth rockets onto the lunar surface and lodges, splat!, in the right eye of the Man in the Moon. Scorsese, sampling his eternal passion, encompasses a century and more of film legerdemain. That makes Hugo not only an act of devotion from a modern movie artist to the wizards who inspired him; it is also the director’s imaginary autobiography.
The young Marty suffered from asthma, which often kept him at home glued to old movies on TV. Hugo’s life is far more perilous. Fearful of being caught by the pompous station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), and with no way of cashing his uncle’s checks, Hugo works and hides in the clock tower, feeding himself by filching snacks from local shops. He also swipes machine parts from the toy store of stern, gloomy Papa Georges (Ben Kingsley). The boy’s friendship with Georges’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) will help him unwrap amazing secrets, including the invention of movie magic.
Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan share Selznick’s belief that movies are both the stuff dreams are made of and the product of supreme technological expertise. The camera is a machine that makes art. Clockworker, magician, filmmaker — each, at his best, is an inspired handyman, a tinker and tinkerer of genius. Like magicians, filmmakers create illusions; the very act of movie projection is a trick, fooling the eyes into believing that the still frames exposed in the shutter for 1/24th of a second are moving pictures. And any movie studio is the stage for splendid Rube Goldberg-machine complexity that ascends into fantasy. “If you ever wondered where your dreams come from,” a famous filmmaker says, “this is where they are made.” It’s as if directors were inside our sleeping brains, fiddling with the machinery like clockmaker-elves, tapping our unconscious to mine images that beguile, terrify and astound us.
Since everyone including Scorsese has revealed the story’s secret, I will as well: the gruff Papa Georges, played with such pain and delicacy by Kingsley, is Méliès himself. After a decade’s sensational success making hundreds of short movies that delighted in a magician’s sense of the impossible made visible, the director-entrepreneur went bankrupt and was forced to sell his films to a manufacturer who melted the celluloid stock to make shoe heels. Méliès thought his life’s work was lost; the world thought he died in the Great War. Instead, he survived by running a small store in a train station, where he was discovered by a devoted film fancier, who helped rescue some of the master’s work. A recent compilation by Flicker Alley contains about 175 Méliès films—a miracle of both his inspiration and historians’ restoration. The Méliès story is the mostly factual background for the fictional Hugo’s tale.
Most boys’ adventure stories send their young heroes on far-flung journeys of self-discovery. Hugo travels no more than a mile from the station. He is both a modern child, with an automaton instead of a computer as his obsessive machine, and a Dickensian hero: a beautiful boy in terrible circumstances with the nourishing memory of a wonderful, lost parent. And the Gare Montmartre is his home, school, workhouse, prison and Quasimodo bell tower. As designed by Dante Ferretti (on the Shepperton Studio soundstage), the station is a cathedral of Deco splendor, no less magical than King’s Cross Station and its Track 9-3/4, the launch point to Hogwarts for another 11-year-old orphan, Harry Potter.
This world-within-a-world is populated with curious folks playing out their own little dramas of disappointment and romance. Among them are an elderly gentleman (The History Boys‘ Richard Griffiths) and his dowager friend (that English stage treasure, Frances de la Tour). Even the Station Inspector, who in story terms in the hounding Javert to Hugo’s jeune Jean Valjean, is not entirely forbidding. Baron Cohen’s rendition summons specters of both the French comic-auteur Jacques Tati and — in a homage so explicit it must be intentional — the persnickety authority figure so often played by Dudley Moore’s comedy partner Peter Cook. The Inspector is given a potential mate in the lovely sad-sack Lisette (Emily Mortimer), whom he pursues in and out of the station’s swank café, with a dance band conducted by…wait, is that dapper gent Johnny Depp?
Selznick’s book, a 500-pager with more pictures than chapters, and readable in an enthralling hour or so, served as the movie’s storyboards, paper prints or flip-book. It was inspired by the films of Méliès, the Lumière brothers, Harold Lloyd and René Clair and, from a later generation of dreamers, François Truffaut’s debut feature, The 400 Blows; the book’s Hugo is a ringer for Jean-Pierre Léaud, the 15-year-old who played Truffaut’s ragamuffin truant Antoine Doinel. Hugo is no less desperate, but as animated by Butterfield’s idealized, pre-Raphaelite beauty, he is a lost saint, not a lost scoundrel. Hugo has a mission, which will bring him a home, the gratitude of parent-figures and the companionship of Isabelle, a girl no less resourceful than he — and, in her Louise Brooks haircut, a silent-film goddess in her own right.
Scorsese had two missions of his own. One was to use his first children’s-film project to push 3-D beyond gimmickry (though his climactic restaging of Arrival of a Train comes close). The sharper images and more beckoning depths, gorgeously captured by cinematographer Robert Richardson, reveal the Montparnasse station as a magnificent fantasy coexisting with Hugo’s poignant reality. Scorsese also wanted to open viewers’ eyes to the sacred sorcery of the first great films. In an ecstatic primer for the young, and a reminder for their elders, Hugo and Isabelle flip through a book of movie history and images spring to life: the films of Lumière, the Edison company, Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks — the whole fabulous parade. Suggestion for FOOFS (Friends Of Old Films): this weekend, take in a double feature of Hugo and The Artist, another splendid new film that means to rekindle a nearly-century-old love affair for silent movies.
But Hugo is more than a love letter to film preservation, a charitable donation to movie lovers, critics included. It is a fable as sensitive and powerful as any Scorsese film since The Age of Innocence nearly two decades ago. Bursting with earned emotion, Hugo is a mechanism that comes to life at the turn of a key in the shape of a heart.
Inventing a World, Just Like Clockwork
NYT Critics' Pick
By MANOHLA DARGIS
The New York Times
Published: November 22, 2011
Martin Scorsese, is the 3-D children’s movie that you might expect from the director of “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” It’s serious, beautiful, wise to the absurdity of life and in the embrace of a piercing longing. No one gets clubbed to death, but shadows loom, and a ferocious Doberman nearly lands in your lap. The movie is based on the book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” but is also very much an expression of the filmmaker’s movie love. Surely the name of its author, Brian Selznick, caught his eye: Mr. Selznick is related to David O. Selznick, the producer of “Gone With the Wind” — kismet for a cinematic inventor like Mr. Scorsese.
Mr. Scorsese’s fidelity to Mr. Selznick’s original story is very nearly complete, though this is also, emphatically, his own work. Gracefully adapted by John Logan, the movie involves a lonely, melancholic orphan, Hugo (Asa Butterfield), who in the early 1930s tends all the clocks in a Parisian train station. Seemingly abandoned by his uncle, the station’s official timekeeper (Ray Winstone), Hugo lives alone, deep in the station’s interior, in a dark, dusty, secret apartment that was built for employees. There, amid clocks, gears, pulleys, jars and purloined toys, he putters and sleeps and naturally dreams, mostly of fixing a delicate automaton that his dead father, a clockmaker (Jude Law), found once upon a time. The automaton is all that remains of a happy past.
Hugo has been repairing the automaton with mechanical parts salvaged from the toys he has stolen from a toy store in the station. All that he needs now to bring the windup figure to life — it sits frozen, with a pen at the ready, as if waiting for inspiration — is the key that will open its heart-shaped lock. After assorted stops and starts and quick getaways, Hugo finds the key during an adventure involving the toy-store owner and his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). A beloved, wanted child, she brings Hugo into her life, which is how he discovers that the cantankerous shopkeeper with the white goatee and sad, watchful eyes is Georges Méliès (a touching Ben Kingsley).
The name means nothing to Hugo and may not mean much to most contemporary viewers, but it means a great deal to this lovely movie. A magician turned moving-picture pioneer, Méliès (1861-1938) began his new career after seeing one of the first public film projections in Paris on Dec. 28, 1895. Until then, early moving pictures had been commercially exhibited on Kinetoscopes, peephole machines that enabled viewers to watch brief films, one person at a time. The image was tiny — less than two inches wide — and moving pictures didn’t become cinema as we know it until wizards like the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière created machines like the cinématographe, which projected larger-than-life images on screens that people watched as an audience.
While the Lumières dazzled with nonfiction films that they called actualités, Méliès enthralled with fantasies and trick films like “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). In this comic 16-minute science-fiction masterwork, a gaggle of scientists in knee breeches fly in a rocket to the Moon, where they encounter acrobatic creatures with lobster claws amid puffs of smoke and clever cinematic sleights of hand. In the film’s most famous image, the rocket lands splat in the eye of the Man in the Moon, causing him to squeeze out a fat tear. It was perhaps a prophetic image for Méliès, who, after falling out of fashion and into obscurity, ran a toy store in the Montparnasse station in Paris, which is where he was later rediscovered.
Mr. Selznick opens and closes his book with some soft pencil drawings of Earth’s Moon, that luminous disk on which so many human fantasies (the Man in the Moon included) have been projected. In the book the Moon is something of a screen against which Méliès’s most celebrated cinematic fantasy unfolds. Mr. Scorsese doesn’t exploit this lunar metaphor (perhaps he believes the Moon belongs to Méliès), yet he locates plenty of cinematic poetry here, particularly in the clock imagery, which comes to represent moviemaking itself. The secret is in the clockwork, Hugo’s father says to him in flashback, sounding like an auteurist. Time counts in “Hugo,” yes, but what matters more is that clocks are wound and oiled so that their numerous parts work together as one.
The movie itself is a well-lubricated machine, a trick entertainment and a wind-up toy, and it springs to life instantly in a series of sweeping opening aerial shots that plunge you into the choreographed bustle of the train station. The first time you see Hugo he’s peering out from behind a large wall clock at the human comedy in the station. He’s staring through a cutout in the clock face, an aperture through which he watches several characters who play supporting roles in a spectacle that is by turns slapstick, mystery, melodrama and romance, including the menacing station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a friendly flower vendor (Emily Mortimer), a woman with a dachshund (Frances de la Tour) and her suitor (Richard Griffiths). When Hugo gazes at them, he’s viewer and director both.
So much happens in this initial whoosh that it feels as if you’d hitched a ride on a rocket too. After the camera divebombs through the station, it follows Hugo as he speeds down halls, a ladder, a chute, a staircase and yet more halls, bringing to mind a Busby Berkeley set and Henry Hill’s long walk into the nightclub in “Goodfellas.” The camera keeps moving, as does Hugo, who, chased by the station master and his Doberman, sprints past James Joyce and Django Reinhardt lookalikes. It’s Paris of the Modernist imagination, though really it’s movieland, where gears loom like those in “Modern Times” and a man who’s part machine oils his bits like the Tin Man (while longing for a heart).
Mr. Scorsese caps this busy introductory section with Hugo looking wistfully at the world from a window high in the station. The image mirrors a stunning shot in his film “Kundun,” in which the young, isolated Dalai Lama looks out across the city, and it also evokes Mr. Scorsese’s well-known recollections about being an asthmatic child who watched life from windows — windows that of course put a frame around the world. This is a story shared by all children, who begin as observers and turn (if all goes well) into participants. But “Hugo” is specifically about those observers of life who, perhaps out of loneliness and with desire, explore reality through its moving images, which is why it’s also about the creation of a cinematic imagination — Hugo’s, Méliès’s, Mr. Scorsese’s, ours.
“Hugo” is the tale of a boy, one of fiction’s sentimental orphans, and the world he invents, yet, unsurprisingly, its most heartfelt passages are about Méliès. The old filmmaker is as broken and in need of revival as the automaton, and while you can guess what happens, it’s the getting there — how the clock is wound — that surprises and often delights. Waves of melancholy wash over the story and keep the treacle at bay, as do the spasms of broad comedy, much of it nimbly executed by Mr. Baron Cohen. There is something poignant and paradoxical about Mr. Scorsese’s honoring a film pioneer in digital (and in 3-D, no less), yet these moving pictures belong to the same land of dreams that Méliès once explored, left for a time and entered once again through the love of the audience.
“Hugo” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). The death of a parent, some child peril and a fierce dog.
Opens on Wednesday nationwide.
Directed by Martin Scorsese; written by John Logan, based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker; music by Howard Shore; production design by Dante Ferretti; costumes by Sandy Powell; visual effects supervisor, Rob Legato; produced by Graham King, Tim Headington, Mr. Scorsese and Johnny Depp; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes.
WITH: Ben Kingsley (Pappa Georges/Georges Méliès), Sacha Baron Cohen (Station Inspector), Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ray Winstone (Uncle Claude), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Michael Stuhlbarg (René Tabard), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick) and Jude Law (Hugo’s Father).
BY ROGER EBERT
November 21, 2011
In broad terms, the story of his hero, Hugo Cabret, is Scorsese's own story. In Paris of the '30s, a bright young boy spends his childhood looking out at the world from a well-placed window, and schooling himself in the workings of artistic mechanisms. Hugo's father is in charge of the clocks at a cavernous Parisian train station. His dream is to complete an automaton, an automated man he found in a museum. He dies with it left unperfected.
Rather than be treated as an orphan, the boy hides himself in the maze of ladders, catwalks, passages and gears of the clockworks themselves, keeping them running right on time. He feeds himself with croissants snatched from station shops and begins to sneak off to the movies.
His life in the station is made complicated by a toy shop owner named Georges Melies. Yes, this grumpy old man, played by Ben Kingsley, is none other than the immortal French film pioneer, who was also the original inventor of the automaton. Hugo has no idea of this. The real Melies was a magician who made his first movies to play tricks on his audiences.
Leave it to Scorsese to make his first 3-D movie about the man who invented special effects. There is a parallel with the asthmatic Scorsese, living in Little Italy but not of it, observing life from the windows of his apartment, soaking up the cinema from television and local theaters, adopting great directors as his mentors, and in the case of Michael Powell, rescuing their careers after years of neglect.
The way "Hugo" deals with Melies is enchanting in itself, but the film's first half is devoted to the escapades of its young hero. In the way the film uses CGI and other techniques to create the train station and the city, the movie is breathtaking. The opening shot swoops above the vast cityscape of Paris and ends with Hugo (Asa Butterfield) peering out of an opening in a clock face far above the station floor. We follow his Dickensian adventures as he stays one step ahead of the choleric Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), in chase sequences through crowds of travelers. Hugo always manages to escape back to his refuge behind the walls and above the ceiling of the station.
His father (Jude Law), seen in flashbacks, has left behind notebooks, including his plans to finish the automaton. Hugo seems somewhat a genius with gears, screws, springs and levers, and the mechanical man is himself a steampunk masterwork of shining steel and brass.
One day Hugo is able to share his secret with a girl named Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), who also lives in the station, and was raised by old Melies and his wife. She is introduced to Hugo's secret world, and he to hers — the books in the cavernous libraries she explores. These two bright kids are miles apart from the cute little pint-sized goofballs in most family pictures.
For a lover of cinema, the best scenes will come in the second half, as flashbacks trace the history and career of Georges Melies. you may have seen his most famous short film, "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), in which space voyagers enter a ship that is shot from a cannon toward the moon; the vessel pokes the Man in the Moon in the eye.
Scorsese has made documentaries about great films and directors, and here he brings those skills to storytelling. We see Melies (who built the first movie studio) using fantastical sets and bizarre costumes to make films with magical effects — all of them hand-tinted, frame by frame. And as the plot makes unlikely connections, the old man is able to discover that he is not forgotten, but indeed is honored as worthy of the Pantheon.
Not long ago, I saw a 3-D children's film about penguins. I thought it was a simpleminded use of the medium. Scorsese uses 3-D here as it should be used, not as a gimmick but as an enhancement of the total effect. Notice in particular his re-creation of the famous little film "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat" (1897), by the Lumiere brothers. You've probably heard its legend: As a train rushes toward the camera, the audience panics and struggles to get out of its way. That is a shot which demonstrates the proper use of 3-D, which the Lumieres might have used had it been available.
"Hugo" celebrates the birth of the cinema and dramatizes Scorsese's personal pet cause, the preservation of old films. In one heartbreaking scene, we learn that Melies, convinced his time had passed and his work had been forgotten, melted down countless films so that their celluloid could be used to manufacture the heels of women's shoes. But they weren't all melted, and at the end of "Hugo, " we see that thanks to this boy, they never will be. Now there's a happy ending for you.
Cast & Credits
Hugo Cabret - Asa Butterfield
Isabelle - Chloë Grace Moretz
Lisette - Emily Mortimer
Georges Méliès - Ben Kingsley
Hugo's Father - Jude Law
Station inspector - Sacha Baron Cohen
Uncle Claude - Ray Winstone
Monsieur Labisse - Christopher Lee
Mama Jeanne - Helen McCrory
Rene Tabard - Michael Stuhlbarg
Madame Emilie - Frances de la Tour
Monsieur Frick - Richard Griffiths
Paramount presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Screenplay by John Logan, based on the novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick. Running time: 130 minutes. MPAA rating: PG (for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking).