My rating: ***
A 12 year old orphan (played by Asa Butterfield, who also appears as the young Mordred in the TV series Merlin) lives in the forgotten back corridors of the Gare Montparnasse in Paris in the early 1930s, maintaining the clocks of the railway station using skills he has been taught by his father and uncle. At the same time he is working on the restoration of a clockwork automaton his father found in a museum. He meets the legendary pioneer of early cinema Georges Méliès and his goddaughter.
This film has received rave reviews but I remain somewhat ambivalent. There is a graphic novel feel to the film with its charmingly dreamlike and retro – and definitely made for Anglo-Saxons – designer Paris. The Gare Montparnasse, with its steam punk behind-the-scenes industrial labyrinth and views of Paris from an implausibly high clock tower, also echoes Notre Dame Cathedral in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). Paris for Anglo-Saxon consumption emerges in particular in the café at the station which is a strange blend of English teahouse run by genteel spinsters and a 1930s French café with ‘petits noirs’, a small dance orchestra and café patrons dancing. French cafés in real life are usually a very male affair. There is also a semi cartoon-like station-master (no doubt referencing the silent cinema keystone cops) complete with blue uniform and kepi played by an unrecognisable Sacha Baron Cohen.
The graphic novel tone of the film comes the experimental children’s novel by Brian Selznick on which it is based: The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic Press, 2007). The author describes it in these terms:
[It] is a 550 page novel in words and pictures. But unlike most novels, the images in my new book don’t just illustrate the story; they help tell it. I’ve used the lessons I learned from Remy Charlip and other masters of the picture book to create something that is not a exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.
An air of melancholy, death and grief pervades the film. Given the period during which the film is set, I was reminded of a 2011 ABC radio national interview with crime novelist PD James, born in 1920, where she describes her experience of being brought up in a grief stricken society dealing with the immense loss of life that took place during the Great War.
It is implied that the main character’s Hugo’s (English) mother died when he was very young. We see his father in flashback, but he is killed in a fire while working on a church clock. The uncle who takes Hugo into his care is an alcoholic who falls into the Seine and is only discovered months later. Georges Méliès, the owner of a sweets and toys shop at the station, is grieving over the loss of his past glories. The awkward, socially inept Stationmaster was brought up in an orphanage and crippled during the War. Hugo’s young female friend is also an orphan but exudes a tomboy girl’s own brand of cheerfulness and resourcefulness which forms a nice counterbalance to Hugo’s gloom.
The film also clearly has an educational mission, providing an overview of some aspects of early cinema, with entertaining re-enactments of some of Méliès’ films, extracts from his A Trip to the Moon (1902), and additional footage of classic early Lumière brothers films such as Train Pulling into a Station (1895) and Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895), some early Thomas Edison footage and other classics of American early silent cinema. There are background references to other early European cinema with a poster for Judex, for example, displayed in the foyer of a cinema. There are also allusions to famous photographs, such as a dream sequence of a famous train crash in 1895 at the Gare Montparnasse with the final shot referencing the photograph.
The happy ending does little to attenuate the overwhelming sense of melancholy produced by the film, which comes across in general as a kind of fannish film buffs’ wish fulfilment fantasy. An improbable world where orphans find a new family, where artists are given the recognition and adulation they deserve, where lonely marginalised people (the station master and two people not in the first flower of attractive youth) find romance. But the rediscovery of Méliès during his lifetime is not fantasy and he was indeed recognised for his achievements with a gala being held in his honour in 1929 and further recognition from then on until his death in 1938, which unfortunately for him, did not translate into financial recognition.
For all its accuracy regarding some of the history of early cinema and of Méliès’ career and rediscovery, Hugo offers what appears to have become the contemporary form of the ‘fairytale’. This contemporary reading of the notion of what constitutes a ‘fairytale’ is far removed from older renditions and can also be found in the current series of Doctor Who and in Tim Burton’s films. It is a model which is thoroughly self conscious about its fairy tale status, often dripping with saccharine sentimentality (there is plenty of this in Hugo), the kitsch and the twee with trappings of gothic-lite horror.
As with many graphic novels and films based on graphic novels or with a large CGI component, I find it difficult to make the connection to the world of the everyday. This kind of modern ‘fairytale’ seems designed to offer an ‘escape’ which ultimately results in a kind of melancholy and despair. Nothing can be done about the real world, so the only solution is escape into a delusional world of imagined happiness and bliss – even if that world often has a sinister surreal touch to it. This, incidentally, is why I find the ending of Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985) to be one of the most hauntingly horrifying endings of any film I have seen.
The kind of speculative fiction which do I find it easier to connect with, takes one back into the ‘real’ world, offering a way of reflecting on political and social situations through mechanisms of metaphorical and imaginative form which create intellectual distance, thus allowing particular social and philosophical issues to be viewed from different and productive perspectives. To refer to other contemporary science fiction fantasy: the TV series Supernatural in a number of episodes, directly addresses the question of the relation between speculative fiction and the everyday (but more of that in a separate post). I might also mention Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) as another example of an engaged and dark modern ‘fairytale’ which does not indulge in sentimentality and deals with some difficult social and political issues. Perhaps it is whether or not the text provides effective mechanisms for reflecting on social, political and existential matters which is the determining factor for me in my appreciation of the speculative fiction genre. Hugo, to my mind, is pretty thin on the ground in this context.
An additional note here on the CGI. I find that CGI photorealism, paradoxically perhaps, creates a distancing effect never quite allowing me to suspend disbelief. Having said this, however, Martin Scorsese offers some visual wonders in Hugo with some fabulous tracking shots – making marvellous use of the 3D medium. The recreated station in Hugo is an amalgam of meticulously built sets, CGI and post-production wizardry. The clockwork mechanisms on display and the Gothic statues in the courtyard of Georges Méliès’ apartment block are very striking. This unreality is something that also struck me in another film I recently viewed – Joe Maddison’s War (2010) – where the CGI rendered warplanes (and incidentally also another implausible fairytale for adults plot) simply put proceedings into an alternate reality far removed from the real historical events which were World War II.
If I have been critical of Hugo, it is, for all that, something out of the ordinary, visually splendid, and an interesting introduction to the history of film. As a children’s film it might provide more engaging material for both children and their long suffering parents than other ghastly screen fodder on offer – such as last year’s Mr Popper and his Penguins or the latest round of the Alvin and the Chipmunks series to mention only two of the more extreme examples.