The 3-D camera swoops over the rooftops of Paris, past the Eiffel Tower and toward Montmartre Station; it dips to cruise above the tracks and moves into the main hall, where an 11-year-old boy is forging his own furtive trek through the commuting crowds. No one knows that the boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), is the station’s timekeeper: regulating the clocks, great and small, since his drunken uncle disappeared and left the job to a lad who must steal to live. Now the camera follows Hugo through the clockwork innards of Gare Montmartre, rushing to keep up but never losing pace or grace. The vertiginous ecstasy of these two magnificent tracking shots, no less than the boy’s solemn urgency, instantly alert moviegoers than Hugo is special, and so is Hugo.
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?
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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?
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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.