Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
What are the odds that two of the best films of the year would be films about the history of Paris by veteran filmmakers identified strongly – almost chained – to the history of another city: New York?
Both Scorsese’s Hugo and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris are in a sense time travel stories. Midnight in Paris is a time travel story – full stop – with writer Gil Pender starting in present-day Paris and travelling back to the Paris of the 1920s and 1890s with a secondary character ending up in Versailles of the time of Louis XIV (late 17th Century). By contrast, Hugo takes place in the Paris of the late 1920s or early 1930s and “travels” back in time to Paris from the late 1890’s to 1914 using the method that most of us use: through the time-travel magic of cinema.
The exact date of Hugo is never really established. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) mentions seeing the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood with his Dad, but they might not have seen it the year it came out. He sneaks fellow orphan Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) into a movie theatre playing Harold Lloyd’s 1923 Safety Last! and the theatre advertises that they are playing the film as part of a Festival of Silent Films (Festival de Films Muets) so the film must take place after Alan Crosland’s 1927 The Jazz Singer, and a few years after that so that people would feel the need to revive the older displaced films, or the theatre owner might have been a hold-out, reluctant to switch to the new technology – according to film historian Colin Crisp, half of French theatres were still exclusively playing silent films as late as 1932.
(On the other hand, the movie revolves around the rediscovery of the forgotten work of Georges Méliès. Since he was given a home in Château d’Orly by the Cinema Society in 1932 and was awarded the Légion d’honneur (also it seems in 1932), the film must take place sometime before then. So the movie probably takes place between 1929 and 1931 and my guess would be that it takes place in 1931.)
As many have claimed, Hugo is a love-letter to the history of cinema and particularly the very early work of Georges Méliès. The film is all of that, and perhaps the most eloquent and beautiful tribute to the power and history of film since Cinema Paradiso. Some will understandably wonder, though, if the film will function for those not already film-obsessed. And it does, it absolutely does. Beyond Scorsese’s love of film, this is fantastic family film, part Boy’s Adventure, part Oliver Twist and part Jules Verne.
It is also the smartest 3D film made to date. Hugo lives in the Paris train station like a rat in the walls, winding the station’s clocks abandoned by his alcoholic Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone), stealing food to survive and clockwork toys for spare parts from the station’s shops. His arch-enemy is the unnamed orphan-catching station inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen). Very early in the film, as Hugo is fleeing the station inspector, he escapes by literally thinking in three dimensions, something that the station inspector, crippled in the Great War, physically can’t do. In other words, Hugo is the first 3D film to use the technology to explain character and drive the narrative.
The 3D also allows us to follow Hugo into the midst of the clockwork mechanisms that lurks inside the walls of the train station. In a sense, where Chaplin was a 2D man constantly in danger of being swallowed by the cogs and gears of modern machinery in Modern Times, Hugo is a 3D boy at home within the machinery and, as he discovers, his life’s purpose is helping others achieve happiness by allowing them to also become complete beings able to think and exist in three dimensions. (Although Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) comes to this mind-set independently of Hugo, he is perhaps infected by Hugo’s meme.)
Let me praise Hugo by condemning it and warning you.
You can absolutely walk into Hugo and love it without being a film geek, without knowing or caring about film history. I am less convinced that you will walk out of the film uninfected by the love of cinema history that I share with Martin Scorsese. Hugo is a virus, a Trojan Horse, concealed within a Boy’s Adventure, designed to infect you with film nerdery. Admittedly, I was already infected, but I walked out of Hugo with a double dose of the virus, with the geeky love of films fizzing off me like electric sparks – a cinematic automaton.
Watch Hugo at your own risk, but for God’s sake, watch it.