Martin Scorsese’s passion for cinema has long been evident. His filmography is filled with titles that not only reference cinema of the past, especially Italian and classical Hollywood cinema, but push the development of contemporary cinema. Scorsese’s ability to look lovingly to the past and excitedly toward the future is further exemplified by his work in restoring and preserving older films while continuing to challenge himself artistically. Hugo is a perfect encapsulation of Scorsese the artist, film historian and pioneer – a technologically advanced 3D spectacle celebrating the craft and imagination of early cinema.
The visual splendour throughout Hugo is mostly derived from its 1930s Parisian train station setting. The light and colour of the production design are heightened to create an expressive fairy tale world, which nevertheless remains grounded in a recognisable reality without ever slipping into overt whimsy or Magic Realism. The true visual flourishes occur when the audience are taken behind-the-scenes of the station, into the hidden passages and rooms occupied by the orphaned boy Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield). In these labyrinthine catacombs, Hugo is surrounded by the mechanics of the station clocks he maintains and the automaton he is trying to repair. Echoes of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis can be felt throughout these scenes while the various mini dramas that play out down on the platforms as witnessed by Hugo evoke Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window.
It is no accident that Scorsese evokes Metropolis and Rear Window since both films are triumphs of how cinematic space can be explored. Like Metropolis Hugo is a spectacle film filled with special effects and like Rear Window the subplots that are literally in the background of the film blend into the principle story. All three films use the technology of the day to explore the boundaries between private and public spaces, and what happens when those spaces are collapsed. In the case of Hugo the technology of the day is the glorious 3D, which creates the best depth-of-field in a narrative film since Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Illuminated specks of dust floating in the air feel like they are in front of your eyes and in one notable scene Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays Inspector Gustav, is given a dramatic close-up where it looks like his head will float out of the screen like a giant blimp.
Hugo coming out from his hidden world to befriend Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a stallholder’s granddaughter, is an important collapsing of private and public spaces in the narrative. While working together to first recover Hugo’s confiscated notebook and then to repair the automaton, the pair discover a piece of at-the-time forgotten film history. While most cinephiles will recognise early in the film what this piece of film history is, seeing it slowly revealed and explained for the benefit of the non-cinephile viewers is extremely rewarding, especially as it is based on a true story. The person at the centre of this story has been long overdue for a biopic, but having their life told in a fictional film with them as a secondary character is something they would have no doubt found delightful. They certainly would have adored the wonder, magic and cinematic craftsmanship behind Hugo.
The two images that resonate most throughout Hugo are the clocks and the automaton. The constant shots of clocks and the sound of the ticking on the soundtrack evoke the period of change and progress between the two World Wars, but also the rush away from the past, which runs the risk of forgetting people, events and artefacts that deserve better recognition. The uncanny figure of the lifelike yet artificial body of the automaton is both a symbol of humanity that has been damaged, fragmented and made expendable by war, but also the hope that technology can be a liberating and hopeful force to create a better world. Both are also reminders that we are living in a time where we receive a constant barrage of information, manufactured images and other sensory stimuli to an extent that even cultural theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin probably could not have imagined when he was examining modernity and cinema in essays such as his 1936 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (which would have been a nice alternative title for Hugo). It’s likely that Hugo’s Rear Window-style multi-perceptive narrative, the use of 3D and production design to represent city spaces as ever changing experiences, and the Parisian train station and arcade setting would have thrilled Benjamin.
In Hugo Scorsese not only tells an important story about early cinema, but delivers a film that is a passionate and convincing reminder of the essential role art and imagination should play in our lives. Hugo also pays tribute to the joys of reading, which is fitting considering it is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Typical of Scorsese it is a nostalgic film, but also a contemporary one. It contains historical commentary on the devaluing of art in times of economic hardship and the damage that war does to the collective souls of a nation – both timeless themes, but particularly applicable to the current era. The best part is that while film buffs will adore it, it hasn’t been made exclusively for them. The main audience that Hugo is intended for is the new generation of filmgoers who may not yet know of a time when cinema wasn’t frequently in 3D and created with computer generated imagery, let alone a time when cinema was silent and in black and white. Being in a theatre filled with young audience members who were engaged with the film and laughing in delight at the early cinema clips, is the final element to what makes Hugo so special. This family film is perhaps Scorsese’s most significant gift back to the art form that he loves so much.