Hugo was another demonstration that a large part of Scorsese is dedicated to documentary. His movie plots rarely rely only on a simple story structure, but draw at truth about some world or society or person – in The Aviator, it was the telling of the life of Howard Hughes; in Kundun it was the exile of Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatzo from India; In Shutter Island it was the mechanics of early 20th century mental health treatment. Scorsese has also made a fair share of documentaries, on topics like Italian cinema, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.
The film tells the story of early and revolutionary filmmaker Georges Melies
, Scorsese tells the story of Georges Méliès
and the beginning of filmmaking in general. At points the movie goes very far into documentary-land, like in the flashback/exposition which serves as the emotional denoument of the story, which rather adorably self-consciously begins with a full-on direct shot of Ben Kingsley’s face, and involves long clips of Méliès’ original film.
Scorsese uses archetype expertly well, wielding it like a tool and using structure as a support, not a creative hindrance. The plot devices are intentional, elegant, and familiar enough to be pleasant but done well enough to avoid the negative aspects of cliche: the plucky, adorable girl, the awkward side love story, the child-who-is-the-exception-to-the-rule, and the ultimately relatable and flawed authority figure whose villiany is centered on the fact that he does not notice that the child is the exception-to-the-rule [complete with semi-frightening animal companion, physical deformity, past pain, awkward love interest…].
Hugo and his father, who is briefly and attractively played by Jude Law
The aesthetic themes of the film, too, are constructed elegantly. Hugo is a boy who only sees the world through cracks and holes – through the numbers in the station clocks, through the holes in the vent windows, and through the metal grid of the automaton’s chest. He ultimately enters the world through these cracks, too, when he slips out of the vents or climbs out of the clock face to hang outside. Hugo’s relation to cracks and holes and small spaces mirrors Méliès’ relationship with the camera lens: he sees the world through a lens and ultimately enters it through the lens as well.
The film uses as sort of wheel spokes Hugo’s various relationships with the people surrounding him. The most obvious one is his father, and the automaton which connects them. There’s also, however, the fact that in a fit of frustration he flings himself into his degenerate uncle’s armchair; there’s the moment when the previously hostile bookseller (given gravitas by being played by Saruman) lends Hugo Robin Hood, and there’s Hugo’s emotional infiltration to Georges via Isabelle and Georges’ wife.
The film is ultimately a demonstration of developed connections and necessary maintenances, without which the characters would remain inoperable, like the broken automaton. The relationship aspect of Hugo includes Scorsese’s relationship with the film itself, and the thing reads like a love letter to filmmaking in general.
Sacha Baron Cohen
Sacha Baron Cohen in Hugo
is absolutely brilliant in his complex portrayal of a character which could very easily be buffooned.His stuttering speech is not quite ridiculous enough for us to laugh at, and it complements the familiar crippling self-consciousness that sort of oozes out of his character’s dialogue. He is a fool, but in a relatable sense. He is terribly awkward, but we cringe instead of laugh at his misfortunes. His air of self-confidence is quite transparent and allows us to see the very real human being underneath. Sacha Baron Cohen does excellently.
It seems kind of moot to point out that Ben Kingsley also does a tremendous job. The part spans a huge amount of time and character development, demanding that Kingsley not just play the secretive, intelligent, and broken older Méliès, but also the pre-war inspired artist, delivering platitudes to young boys while wearing a lobster costume. In Hugo, Ben Kingsley is everything that his part should be.
The aesthetics are another solid part of the film. Hugo is (and it does this wonderfully) a war-era film glazed in steam punk. The aesthetic is wrapped in gears, trains, skeleton keys, and old video cameras, and topped with flower sellers in berets and a reassuring sense of the fantastic – lovers of flim noir, steam punk, cyber punk and any aesthetically-intentional style may drool a little. I am unsure about how I feel about 3D – I am too poor and not interested enough to see the more expensive version of the movie – but the fact that directors like Scorsese and Jackson are using it is making me consider itmore carefully. I can at least see how the aesthetic would work well with the round, polished dimension that 3D movies have.
Hugo is a story and, if you Wikipedia Georges Méliès, a true one at that. Its comments on the changing public reception to fantasy and story telling are especially pertinent: the generation that grew up on ultra-ironic media like Shrek, The Office, and SNL are more often receiving stories told unapologetically, like Hugo and Avatar and Harry Potter, and it is interesting to see how we’ll react.