For all its faults, and there were many, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island at least carried a sizable amount of cinephilic wonderment; citing its extreme stylization hardly does justice to its wealth of allusions, revelry in old-fashioned modes of narrative, and general love of classical Hollywood, from silent-era expressionism to Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. Hugo, the acclaimed filmmaker’s first foray into the family movie market, represents a noticeable step forward. Not content with a stylish mash-up of different techniques, Scorsese channels his cinematic hyperactivity into a single area of his innumerable filmic interests: the silent cinema of the 1920s, specifically that of French and American filmmaking pioneers.
The story is about a young orphan named Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who dwells in the Montparnasse clock tower and who seeks to repair an automaton handed down to him from his clockmaker father (Jude Law), who has recently died in a fire. On his quest, he arouses the ire of a local shopkeeper, who turns out to be French filmmaker Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), now long forgotten. Keeping out of sight of the stern, orphan-snatching Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo embarks with Méliès’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) to discover the mystery of the automoton and restore Méliès’ name to its former glory. The synopsis befits a fairly typical children’s adventure story, but the way in which Scorsese shapes the material for cinema is ravishing.
The film opens with two awe-inspiring directorial maneuvers: a slow dissolve from the churning gear of a clock to a topographic view of the luminous nighttime Paris cityscape, and a rapid forward tracking shot that swoops down from snowy Parisian streets into the Montparnasse train station, surging forward until halting in front of the all-seeing eyes of our hero, who sits unnoticed in the station’s clock tower. Each of these is stunning in its own right, but they are also both closely and complexly intertwined with the thematic concerns of Scorsese’s narrative. The dissolve establishes a relationship between machinery at its smallest component and everyday life at its most grand, thematically foreshadowing a crucial dialogue to come near the film’s climax. It is also a graphic match-cut as bold and as precisely geometric as something by Epstein or Murnau, two of the many masters of the silent-era that Scorsese so lovingly aims to consecrate. The tracking shot, on the other hand, is designed to mirror the forward trajectory of one of the station’s trains. With its barreling motion and lurching stop, the movement subtly anticipates a later railroad disaster that also designates Hugo as its target.
These introductory motifs continue to build in importance. The clocks and trains that figure so prominently in Hugo are analogues to film technology. Part of what Scorsese wishes to impart is the magic of machinery and the integration between humans and technology. Hugo’s love of the cinema and the way it vivifies the imagination extends from an interest, inherited from his father, in the way things work: the functionality of machines serves as a window into the functionality of human life. And thus micro-machinery, interlocking parts, gears and screws all become wound up in a metaphor for personal completeness. This insider knowledge of the deeper significance of technology binds Hugo to Melies, but just as no one stops to wonder who’s responsible for the clocks’ running on time, so too has everyone come to take the cinema for granted, one of its foremost innovators left dejected and forgotten. To extend the metaphor: brokenness afflicts the embittered Méliès as it afflicts his dysfunctional automaton.
The Montparnasse trains, like the cinema itself, stand for the streamlined boldness of twentieth century industry. Much has been made of Scorsese’s implementation of the clock tower ascension of Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, but the way he illustrates the locomotive and its relationship to movies is even more thoughtful. Naturally, he makes great fun of the Lumieres’ Arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat, but harder to catch are the short clip of Buster Keaton’s The General and the mannerisms of the train engineer and his assistant intended to evoke similar scenes from Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine. In a few scattered strokes, Scorsese has sketched a layman’s history of the train as cinematic iconography from the 1890s to the 1930s.
There are many additional riches as well. Sacha Baron Cohen’s inspector, a seemingly superfluous dispenser of comic relief, becomes a sympathetic in his efforts to charm the local flower girl. This romantic interlude, one of two brief love stories that develop over the course of the film, not only captures the spirit of silent-era shorts, as Kristin Thompson recently observed, but also relates to the larger narrative: we learn that Gustav lost his left leg in the first world war, the very same that took the flower girl’s brother and fueled the decline of Méliès’ career. The illustration of the train station as a home to incidental narratives of love and loss just waiting to be probed harks back to an old-fashioned French and Hollywood cinema, wherein plot wasn’t so single-minded and a film’s emotional riches could be distributed with generosity to less important characters.
Scorsese fuses all of the above, every subplot and stylistic excursion, into his central narrative. Instead of the expressionistic freewheeling of Shutter Island, in which every set-piece was its own self-contained spectacle, Hugo’s many plot details and directorial extravagances are allowed to commingle. Despite the seeming discordance of the main story, an exciting tale of youthful adventure abruptly transitioning into a lengthy meditation on film history, Scorsese manages to keep everything seamless and interconnected. Supplemented by his craftsmanship, his self-professed cinephilia, and his old age, Scorsese transforms Méliès from a simplistic Scrooge figure into a truly tragic character, one that Scorsese sincerely identifies, and perhaps even empathizes, with. That the story of Méliès’ downward spiral and eventual uplift is actual history, some necessary fabrications aside, only makes the film more touching. The final celebration of Méliès’ life’s work is comparable to Rushmore’s concluding stage-play in its illustration of art as a fosterer of communal unity (every character in the film is present at the event, and the film’s final shot marks each as a waypoint in a lovely extended camera movement). Meanwhile, the celebratory affirmation of an old man’s importance to a community evokes the heartbreaking conclusion of John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright.
While Hugo has been met with critical acclaim, it appears that there remains some skepticism over Scorsese’s sudden decision to break with his pattern of gritty adult dramas in favor of a family film. Those more familiar with Scorsese’s favorite films will probably be less surprised than those who have him stringently pegged as a director of ‘gangster movies,’ but it remains a bit disheartening to see this get swept under the rug. Hugo is to Scorsese’s oeuvre what Family Plot is to Hitchcock’s: a late masterpiece buried in an unlikely genre that many have trouble recognizing.
But a masterpiece it is. Perhaps the most personal film of Scorsese’s long career, Hugo intertwines youth and old age, idealism and world-weariness, technology and humanity, spinning the result into a grand treatise on the inexplicable beauty of the cinema, not simply by using its lovable hero to wax nostalgic over a child’s innocent love for motion pictures, but by demonstrating, through the lens of history and the wisdom of old age, that such childish affection can linger into adulthood, create deeply personal meaning, and define a legacy.