Martin Scorsese's Hugo

By Moira Sullivan
Cloë Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield in Hugo.

Film history should be taught in grade school, and it is unfortunate that it isn’t because many people today might better appreciate Martin Scorsese's new film Hugo. Ironically, he mixes the techniques of early cinema with today’s and uses 3D for the first time in his career. 
Georges Méliès
Hugo brings to life one of the greatest creators of magic on the screen, Georges Méliès (1861-1938) The story is based on the novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Zelznick. Scorsese ingeniously employs many cross references in the film that are part of film heritage, such as the crash of a train right through the front of Gare Montparnasse, which actually happened in 1895, and Hugo Cabret holding on to the huge clock of the train station as did Harold Lloyd in a silent film of the 20s.

The film is set in Paris the in the 1920s after the Great War, and no one speaks French. It would appear that Scorsese seems satisfied that if people have British accents they will pass as the French. That would include the American actress Cloë Grace Moretz from Atlanta who stars opposite Asa Butterfield from London. Butterfield revealed that Scorsese had him watch the films of Méliès in preparation for making the film, and it is hard to understand how he could have made this film without doing that.
Hugo unofficially works in the train station - Gare Montparnasse - where he keeps the huge clocks working. After a tragic accident in which he loses his father in a fire, his drunken uncle takes him in to do his work at the station. All that is left of his father is an "Automaton", a mechanical doll that he tried to repair and which holds the key to not only unlocking Hugo’s past but also that of Georges Méliès. 

Hugo steals food from the shops in the station to survive and tries to stay under the radar of the station inspector on duty with an attack dog and a steel brace on his leg that slows him down, played by Sasha Baron Cohen. Hugo also pockets tiny cogs and wheels from mechanical objects. When trying to steal a wind up mouse from a toy repair shop he has to forfeit his notebook as punishment.  The shop owner who turns out to be Méliés, played by Ben Kingsley, is clearly disturbed by this book of intricate drawings of mechanical objects and threatens to burn it. Hugo follows him to his home and outside gets the attention of a young girl who lives with him, (Cloë Grace Moretz) who promises to help him retrieve his notebook. Isabelle’s life is spent in the train station as the toy shopkeeper’s ward, and also by reading. Therefore, she decides to help Hugo because if presents for her the opportunity for adventure, so into the magical world of film she goes with him, as if she isn’t already living within it with Méliès. Hugo takes her to see Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923) where he holds on to a huge clock. 

Through a visit to a library run by Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) they discover a book on the early history of cinema. They flip through images of early cinema such as a train pulling into a train station. The story is well known by film students that the sight of the train was considered real by the frightened spectators on the late 19th century. Scorsese shows this in the film but one thing that Scorsese doesn’t show are the fights that ensued in those early screenings in Paris, with movie theaters of over 2,000 spectators.  From film history, we also know that Georges Méliès was not as successful as the entrepreneurs, the Lumiére brothers, who inspired him to make a film camera.  His vast archive of over 500 films was lost save for 80 0f them that were salvaged and he was presumed dead when he vanished into obscurity. 
Martin Scorsese is well known for his film preservation efforts, which makes him one of today’s foremost directors and he has gone into the past to bring to public attention our first films. Paris is considered the birthplace of cinema, and the enchanting film of Hugo shows the city in all it splendor.

© 2012 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 11/30/11
Movie Magazine International