erik lundegaard

Hugo
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Hugo (2011)

WARNING: CLANDESTINE SPOILERS

For most of its 50-year history, 3-D movies have been famous, or infamous, for propelling cinematic objects at its audience. Martin Scorsese turns this idea on its head. He begins “Hugo,” his first 3-D movie, as well as his first children’s movie, by propelling his audience at cinematic objects.

We begin with an extended shot inside of the Montparnasse train station in the 14th arrondissement of Paris in 1931. It’s crowded, as train stations are, but the camera keeps moving through hordes of people getting on and off the train. If the tendency in a traditional 3-D movie is to duck out of the way of thrown objects, the tendency here is to bob and weave through the crowd. It puts us in the scene. It feels like magic.

Magic is key to “Hugo” and—Scorsese would argue—to cinema. Maybe we don’t always feel it now. Maybe we’re all a little too jaded in the 21st century with our iPhones and iPads. So Scorsese takes us back to a time when we didn’t need 3-D technology to flinch away from something onscreen—we did it anyway, in 1895, with the black-and-white, 48-second film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” by the Lumiere Brothers. He reminds us that movies were not only magic but created by magicians; that books were once precious, and thus magic when in your hands; and that being whole in body and spirit after the Great War and during the Great Depression was so rare it was a kind of magic, too.

(Remember that train arrival, by the way. It returns.)

“Hugo,” I should mention at the outset, is completely charming, hugely entertaining, and genuinely educational. Almost everyone who sees it will be educated. Even I, at 48, was educated.

The title character, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), is a 10-year-old orphan who lives inside the clockwork at the Montparnasse train station. He life is both dodgy and an adventure: He steals to eat, steals equipment to fix the clocks, and is forever on the run from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his growling Doberman Pinscher. We can’t help but wonder how he got there. And why he stays there.

From behind the clocks at the station, he peers, generally out the number “4,” at the goings-on of the station: the attempts of Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) to woo Madame Emille (Frances de la Tour); the attempts of the Station Inspector, with his squeaky metal leg, to merely speak to Lisette, the flower girl (Emily Mortimer), or to capture another urchin and send him off to the orphanage. He sees the monumental Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) sitting inside his book shop and the quiet Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) dozing in front of his toy/repair shop with a tool nearby. Which is when he makes his move.

Bad move. Méliès was merely laying a trap for him, this boy, this THIEF, who had already stolen half of Méliès’ tool collection. He demands that he empty his pockets. But Hugo’s pockets merely contain bits and pieces: flotsam. Plus a notebook with words and diagrams and drawings. When Méliès sees it he gasps in recognition before turning even frostier. Hugo pleads with him to give it back but the next day Méliès shows up with ashes wrapped in a handkerchief.

The notebook, which isn’t really destroyed, is one of the few mementoes Hugo has of his father (Jude Law), a clock keeper and repairman. In a brief flashback, we see the father buy an automaton from a museum and attempt to fix it—to bring it back to life. Then he dies in a sudden fire and Hugo is adopted by his drunk Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone); he is taken to the Montparnasse station and put to work. Then Claude, too, disappears. (He drowns, we find out later, in the Seine.) But Hugo keeps working. He keeps all the clocks going so no one will investigate, find him alone, and put him in an orphanage. You could say he’s a boy trapped in time.

After the scene with the ashes, Hugo’s spirit is revived by Méliès’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), another orphan, but a happy one with a home. She’s a precocious lover of books and words (“clan-des-tine”), who talks up fantasy worlds such as Oz, Neverland, and Treasure Island. But she wants an adventure of her own and she sees Hugo as the key. One day he offers her one: He takes her to the movies. Specifically, he sneaks her into the movies.

Isabelle: We could get into trouble...
Hugo: That’s how you know it’s an adventure.

Before they’re tossed out, they see Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock tower in “Safety Last,” an indelible cinematic image, and one Hugo will repeat before the movie is over. Afterwards, she tells him Papa Georges doesn’t allow her to go to movies, though she’s not sure why, and he tells her how his father loved movies, and once saw a film where a rocketship went right into the eye of the moon. The father said it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.

Their adventure, and friendship, deepens, and he show her where he lives. “I feel like Jean Val Jean,” she says, of the steamy metal works, where, behind the scenes, Hugo has been attempting to do what his father couldn’t: fix, or bring to life, the automaton. He believes if he fixes it, he will receive a message from his father. One thing stands in his way: a keyhole in the shape of a heart.

Somehow Isabelle has that key.

The automaton is poised to write, and, wound up, that’s what it does. Unfortunately what it writes is gobbledygook: a “c,” a “4,” an “r.” When it stops, it’s Hugo who breaks down. He cries and confesses that in his heart he thought if he fixed the automaton his father would come back to life.

Which is when the automaton begins writing again, faster and faster, and it becomes apparent that it’s not writing at all. It’s, as Hugo says, drawring. What does it drawr? A rocketship in the eye of the moon.

This does seem like a message from Hugo’s father. But at the last instant, the automaton adds a final touch—a name: Georges Méliès.

I assume a few people in the audience will know the answer to this mystery. They’ll know that Georges Méliès, a former magician, was an early innovator of cinema who created hundreds of films in the 1900s and 1910s, including “Le voyage dans la lune,” with the rocketship in the eye of the moon. He also created the automaton. Those who don’t know his cinematic background will enjoy uncovering the mystery along with Hugo and Isabelle, who are schooled by Prof. Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), an early film historian, and all three will attempt to reunite the volatile Méliès with his past—to fix him, in Hugo’s words—all the while outrunning and outsmarting the Station Inspector and his Doberman Pinscher.

That’s basically the rest of the movie and you can guess how it goes. “Happy endings only happen in the movies,” Hugo says earlier. And he’s right. At least here.

I could go on. The art and set direction of “Hugo” are incredible—those great puffs of steam behind the works—and the acting is wonderful: from big people with small roles to small people with big roles. Chloë Grace Moretz makes anew the smart girl with the precocious vocabulary, and Asa Butterfield, with his intense blue eyes, wears pain the way other actors wear a scarf. You feel, even in happy moments, it never quite leaves him. Sacha Baron Cohen, meanwhile, gives us a villain who is actually sympathetic (and still comic), while Michael Stuhlbarg brings his innate gentleness, previously cloaked in a schlemiel (“A Serious Man”) and a gangster (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), to a true gentle man.

Even the source material is rich. “Hugo” is based upon the 2007 children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick. Initially I wondered if all the movie history was in the book, or if Scorsese, with his love of film and film history, added it. But it’s not only in the book, it’s in the author. Brian Selznick, born in 1966, is first cousin twice removed to David O. Selznick, the producer of “Gone with the Wind.”

All of which is fascinating. But what I want to talk about is Hugo’s dream.

After the above scene with Isabelle and the automaton, Hugo sees Isabelle’s heart-shaped key on the train tracks in the station. He looks up, he looks down, then leaps onto the tracks. He fingers the key. He sees it as the answer. But at that moment a train is arriving and Hugo, lost in thought, doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late, until the train leaps the tracks and careens through the station and bursts through a wall and falls onto the ground outside, a story below. Which is when Hugo wakes up.

As he’s feeling himself to make sure he’s all there, he begins to change. His flesh becomes metal, and his torso becomes ribs of metal, and his face turns into the calm, expressionless (but somehow very expressive) face of the automaton. Which is when he wakes up again. A dream within a dream.

Each dream takes less than a minute but initially I felt a little cheated—as I often do with dreams in movies. But I gave this one a pass. I remembered the line “Movies are like dreams in the middle of the day” and thought this scene was building on that theme.

It was. And more.

Later in the film, at its climax, Hugo is taking the automaton to Georges Méliès but is finally caught by the Station Inspector; and in their struggle, the automaton goes flying in the air and lands on the train tracks... just as a train is coming. As the automaton is the key to everything, Hugo leaps onto the tracks to save it. But this is where his courage leaves him. He embraces the automaton but can’t move. He’s as frozen as the automaton. It’s up to the Station Inspector, acting as deus ex machina, the redemptive engine of himself, to pull both boy and robot to safety.

You think back to the dreams: The key is on the tracks; the boy and automaton are one.

But there’s more. Remember the Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” which Hugo and Isabelle see while researching early film history? The people cowering from the oncoming train on the movie screen? That’s like this scene. That’s like his dream. The train on the screen leaps into Hugo’s dreams and reality.

But it wasn’t until I got home and researched the Gare Montparnasse that I found the true coup de grace. Because in 1895, the same year as “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” a train did jump the tracks at the Gare Montparnasse; and it did careen through the station and burst through a wall and fall onto the ground outside, a story below. There’s a famous photograph showing that fallen train.

This is deep resonance. We get echoes upon echoes, involving dreams, history, film, and film history. The movie keeps doing this, too: the ashes of Hugo’s notebook; the ashes his father came to; the ashes Méliès’ early films were reduced to. On and on. The movie resonates so much it has a beat, a pulse. It’s alive.

—November 23, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard