I'm trying to be objective about Martin Scorsese's new film, Hugo (2011), and I'm finding it to be almost impossible. I love it with an unreason out of all proportion to its qualities, because it's a distillation of the things I treasure in life into one great delirium-inducing decoction. It's an act of unashamed love of cinema. It's the warmest, most affirming film that Scorsese has ever made and I came out of it walking on air in spite of the fact that my eyes were watering. This comes by tears honestly, with pure unadulterated joy.
And it's the most unlikely of movies. It's a kids movie? In 3-D? By Scorsese? The amount of cognitive dissonance built into that combination is daunting. What would attract Scorsese to such a project? As I watched the movie, it all became clear to me. This movie is chock full of the things that Scorsese values most in the world, too: the joy of movies, the history of movies, and preserving the legacy of the movies. Having seen it, I can't imagine Scorsese NOT making it.
The story here follows Hugo, a boy who lives in the walls of the Gare Montparnasse train station. He's the son of a clockmaker, with whom he had been restoring an automaton that Hugo's father had found in the museum where he worked. The museum is also where Hugo's father died, killed in a fire. Hugo then went to live with his uncle, Claude, who maintained the clocks in the train station. Claude has vanished, led astray by a taste for drink, leaving Hugo the task of tending the clocks and existing on his own. He still has the automaton, which he continues to restore because he's convinced that it contains a secret passed to him by his father. To this end, Hugo has been pinching spare parts from the toymaker on train station's promenade. One day, the toy maker catches him and seizes the notebook with the schematic drawings for the automaton that Hugo's father had drawn. The toymaker vows to burn it, but doesn't. Instead, he puts Hugo to work fixing toys as a penance. All the while, Hugo dodges the station inspector, who seems to relish sending orphan children off to an orphanage. Hugo also meets the toymaker's grand niece, Isabelle, and they form a friendship. Hugo takes her to a movie. She's never seen a movie. Her Papa Georges, the toymaker, forbids it, but she's enraptured by the movie (which is Harold Lloyd's Safety Last). She begs Hugo to show her his secret project, and he does. She turns out to have the key that will let automaton run, and when it does, it draws a picture of a moon face with a rocket in its eye, and signs it "Georges Méliès." "But that's Papa Georges' name," she says, and they set about discovering the life's work of her embittered uncle...
There's a lot more to this movie than I can encapsulate in this synopsis. Scorsese has populated the shops of the train station with interesting characters who enact wonderful little vignettes. Hugo watches most of these from a distance and the movie delineates them with the economy of a silent movie. You have Monseiur Frick who is romancing Madam Emilie only to be thwarted by her dog. You have the sinister Station Inspector, who is completely smitten with Lissette, the flower vendor, but who doesn't act on it because he feels inadequate due to the injury he suffered in the Great War that requires him to wear a clumsy leg brace. There's the kindly bookseller who lends books to Isabelle and to Hugo as a means of keeping their imaginations fired. All of these are filmed as a kind of miniature tableaux and each of them seems like their own silent movie in their own right. But it's the rediscovery of Georges Méliès that Scorsese is REALLY interested in, and he populates the movie with actual clips from Méliès's movies, while recreating his studio and his career in fanciful flashbacks that plunge the movie into a kind of never-never land where waking dreams are being made and preserved on celuloid. This is the invention of movie, and the movie celebrates it and mourns the loss of so much of our cinematic heritage. In some ways, Hugo is a vast piece of agitprop on behalf of film preservation, something Scorsese is passionate about. The film, too, goes to pains to present all kinds of varieties of cinema beyond the silent films. There's a wonderful scene where Hugo's notebook becomes a flip-book, for one example, and another where a paper with drawings on both sides flutters in the air creating an animated image. It's a hell of a conjuring trick. Cinema as a wonderment carries over into the presentation of this film in general. This is the first 3-D movie I think I've ever seen that not only justifies its use of the process, it positively demands it. 3-D gives the film a kind of picture-book quality that's appropriate enough for a children's movie, but it also emphasizes the novelty of early cinema. The movie restages the first showings of the Lumiere Brothers' film of a train arriving at a station and the way the audience ducks away from it suggests that cinema has always played games with the depth of its image. From the very beginning, it was showmanship. Scorsese punctuates this by filming a train crash of his own, patterned after a very real train accident at that very station.
Hugo is also a children's adventure movie beyond all of its meta concerns, and on this count, the movie is perhaps less good than it could be. Don't get me wrong: it's still boldly imaginative and it's still tied to a bottomless love of movies--Scorsese, ever the imp, shows a clip of the clock scene from Safety Last early in the film, and then recreates it later in the movie when Hugo is fleeing the Station Inspector for one example. But the whole children's adventure is just a means to an end here, and one gets the feeling that the director might have done without if he could have. Or maybe not. There are certainly touches that suggest a fondness for childrens' movies of the past. Sasha Baron Cohen's Station Inspector certainly recalls the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the fascination with toys goes a little beyond the necessities of the plot. But all of this seems secondary to me. The movie isn't all of a piece.
And do you know what, else? I don't care. I don't care because it's so packed to the gills with things I love, from books to movies to art to music that its like it the damned thing has sunk an electrode into the pleasure centers of my brain. I mean, watch quick for cameos by Salvador Dali, James Joyce, and Django Reinhardt, all of whom were in Paris at the time the film is set. The film's Paris, like the Paris of Casablanca, is a Paris of dreams. Watch, too, for a complete delight in magic and technology. This isn't Scorsese's first brush with a steampunk aesthetic--Gangs of New York runs up against it, too--but it's a comprehensive one. Like Gangs, it presents a past that was weirder and more sophisticated than dry histories will admit. The film is a gallery of wonderful faces, too, none of them overly pretty. Some of them look like they stepped out of a painting. Frances De La Tour, for instance, wouldn't be out of place in a Toulouse-Lautrec. And Christopher Lee! Christopher Lee is such a terrifying screen presence that it's delightful seeing him as the kindly old bookseller in this movie. I like to think that he's channeling his old friend, Peter Cushing, in the role, but that's just me projecting my own biases onto the film.
It's a mark of this film's basic humanity that it takes what could essentially be a villain in Cohen's Station Inspector and humanizes him. His brief romance with Emily Mortimer's flower seller is like a Frank Borzage melodrama in miniature. His bitterness in life is swept away by love. The kids do well under Scorsese's direction, too, though Chloe Moretz has already proven herself to be one of those uncanny child actors. She may not match Jodie Foster's performance in Taxi Driver, but she doesn't need to. She certainly acquits her self well. Asa Butterfield is all wide-eyed innocence. His performance suffers a bit because there's not much variety for him, but he suffices. Jude Law's brief part as Hugo's dad is underdeveloped, but if you want to get me interested in Law again, dress him in stylish period clothing as he is here. Yum. Ben Kingsley gets the juicy part of Georges Méliès, and it's twofold, requiring him to be both the impish dreamer who invented the movies and the embittered old man who believes the world has forgotten him. Kingsley is a terrific actor and Scorsese hands him the movie.
Like I say. I'm trying hard to remain objective, because this is the kind of movie that makes me prone to gushing like a schoolgirl. I don't know if this is the best movie I've seen this year. In purely formal terms, probably not. But I know this--know it down to the bottom depths of my heart: this is the movie I will treasure most from this year.