Hugo (2011) – Scorsese’s magnificent love letter to cinema is an endorsement of film preservation


When I first heard about Hugo, I thought Scorsese was finally making some kids’ film about a boy and his robot. I was wondering how Scorsese would handle a kids’ film after all the serious, adult-oriented films he has done so far. When it finally came out and I learned what it really was about, I was flabbergasted. I thought, “This is a film about cinema? And Scorsese has made it? Whoa! I can’t wait to see this!” There can’t possibly a better candidate than Scorsese to make a film about cinema. I loved what he had done with the story of film director, aviator, inventor and billionaire Howard Hughes in The Aviator and now there is going to be a film about one of the earlier pioneers of cinema, Georges Méliès. My excitement knew no bounds.


The titular character of the film, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young orphan living inside a Paris railway station. His dad used to be an inventor and left him with an automaton, before his death. This automaton is broken and he is looking for a way to fix it. In the hope of stealing some spare parts, he chances upon Georges Méliès’ (Ben Kingsley) toy shop. One day, Méliès catches him red-handed and discovers a diary on him containing some blueprints of the automaton. An enraged Méliès decides to hold on to it. Hugo strikes a friendship with Méliès’ goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to get it back. Hugo learns that Isabelle has a special shaped key that could belong to the automaton and perhaps make it work. The key makes the automaton work and it produces a drawing of a scene from A Trip to the Moon. Hugo learns that Méliès used to be a filmmaker at one point and it was he who made that film. They head to the Film Academy Library. A film expert René Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) is curious to see these two looking for information on Méliès and learns that Méliès, who he presumed to be dead, is alive and well. He tells them about how a disillusioned Méliès chose to abandon his profession and burned all his films in an attempt to detach himself from that memory. Hugo is overjoyed when Tabard reveals that he has a copy of A Trip to the Moon. They decide to approach Méliès with this news.


It’s very evident that Hugo is Scorsese’s most personal film; his grand love letter to cinema. It’s also his plea for film preservation. In 1990, Scorsese founded The Film Foundation, a non-profit organisation committed to film preservation and restoration of old and lost classics. The renowned film critic Roger Ebert made a keen observation about the film which I thought was spot on. He noted that Hugo discovering Méliès is akin to Scorsese discovering Michael Powell and restoring some of his films, especially Peeping Tom (which I had reviewed earlier on my blog). I wonder who the real stand-in for Scorsese is in this film – Hugo or Tabard. I’m more inclined to think that it is Hugo. Scorsese makes a cameo as a photographer.


Those who have seen or read the interviews of Scorsese are aware that he used to be an asthmatic child who couldn’t go outside and play with his friends and was confined to staying indoors. This gave him plenty of opportunities to discover the magical world of cinema. This is one aspect of Scorsese’s life that I can very much relate to. Even though I wasn’t asthmatic, I couldn’t go out much as I was restricted by my overly protective parents (one of the disadvantages of being an only child, you see). So, I spent my time watching lots of movies. The visual style Scorsese chose for the film resembles that of some of Méliès’ films.


The opening sequence is truly a marvelous sight to behold. The fluid swooping camera movement that begins with a shot of the spinning cogs of a clock magically transforming into an overhead shot of a night time Paris and then proceeds to move towards the railway platform, through the crowd and ending with a shot of Hugo’s eyes peering through a slit that makes up one of the numbers of a massive clock, is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It brought to mind a particular shot from the 1927 silent film, Wings. It was known for it’s highly inventive camera work, something that was not seen in other silent films at the time. Kudos to cinematographer Robert Richardson (who had worked with Scorsese before on The Aviator and Casino) for delivering a spellbinding work. It has an impressive production design that looks unbelievably spectacular.


The film also pays homage to several other films, most notably, the 50-sec black and white documentary film of a train pulling into a station, by the Lumière brothers. There is also a homage to Harold Lloyd’s 1923 film, Safety Last! (which I had the pleasure of watching recently). And I think Scorsese knows how to handle 3D and visual effects better than any other director, even though this is only the second film where he has employed them. I don’t think I’ve seen 3D work in any other film the way it has worked here. It’s not used as a gimmick and serves to complement an already immersive storyline. The film works even without the 3D, as I have seen it in both 2D as well as on Blu-ray and the experience doesn’t change one bit. The box office collection was disappointing. There was a loss of $100 million. Instead of watching this masterpiece, people simply chose to watch The Muppets and some ridiculous film (that cannot be named) about teenage vampires.


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