“Actually, it’s a movie about making movies,” is a sentence that you will hear a thousand some odd times if you ever make a serious go of film discussion and criticism.
It’s one of those phrases that’s coded into the core of the language we use to talk about films, and it’s a go-to for any critic who thinks their knowledge of the director’s approach to filmmaking is the golden key to understanding a somewhat difficult to parse film. I’ve said it many a time – perhaps most notably about The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece (though most would apply the phrase to his subsequent film, Inception) – and rarely been correct in its application. It’s a neat analysis, but it seldom reveals thematic depths.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a movie about making movies.
There are a few movies on this list that are going to be hard for me to describe and analyze critically because they press the emotional button so effectively that I more or less devolve into a gibbering mess of praise and hyperbole. Hugo is one of them. Scorsese, long one of my favorite directors for his seeming total control over the medium to a degree that makes it look easy, has created a film that is a wholehearted celebration of the spirit of filmmaking. It accomplishes this in large part through its gorgeous craftsmanship, but perhaps most critically through its textual exploration of one of early cinema’s greatest heroes: Georges Méliès.
Méliès was a man who believed that movies were a window into humanity’s dreams. He treated them with the sort of fairy tale beauty and whimsy that is uncommon outside of the minds of children. In keeping with this, Scorsese’s film is dripping with bright, saturated colors, impossible camera movements (it often feels as if the camera is preternaturally gliding around the settings, as if a winged fairy flitting in and out of the action), and a heightened world filled with excessive clockwork. Golden light bathes nearly every frame of the film, giving it this look befitting the gilded age that Scorsese is recapturing. Asa Butterfield’s Hugo Cabret feels more like a ghost of Peter Pan than a normal boy, so capable is he at evading capture and worming his way through the tunnels of the train station.
It’s a genuinely lovely feel, and the movie is endlessly pleasant for it. Even Chloe Moretz’s character, that cusp-of-teenage-pretension emanating from her every line of dialogue, finds a way to be endearing in the context of this film. Even as the plot meanders for the first half or so, it’s a joy to simply take in the sights and sounds of this world.
But Scorsese has never in his career been content to offer simply a visual feast. This is a movie that, just as much as it wears its aesthetic excess as a badge of honor, wears its thematic ideas on its sleeves, often resorting to characters more or less directly stating them. It mostly works, though there are a few places where John Logan’s screenplay lags behind the craft of the rest of the film. What saves it is that this film is confident in what it is saying.
This is a film that believes that the one thing that can ultimately fix a broken person is another person. That’s a very basic thematic idea, to be sure – people finding solace in other people is a fundamental tenet of human interaction that doesn’t really come close to the level of profound insight that some might expect from a Scorsese film. But where Scorsese takes this further in in suggesting that one way that people can fix each other is through the movies.
Scorsese’s twin protagonists here – Hugo and Melies – act as antagonists in each other’s stories, but are really both protagonists from the perspective of the audience. Though Melies is initially shown as a curmudgeonly, cruel old man, this is through the lens of Hugo, who sees him only as the obstacle in his own being made whole again. Similarly, Melies’ view of Hugo is rooted in this false perception of Hugo as a vagrant who is dredging up uncomfortable memories of the past. These two people getting past these initial perceptions to see the broken, aching hearts at their cores is the key emotional arc of the film, and what enables it to happen is a shared love of the movies.
What is Hugo’s careful reassembly of Melies’ automaton if not an artist creating a work inspired by the work of artists before him? He had no instructions for the automaton, and had to cobble together pieces that he could find. This is just what Melies did when the Lumiere brothers refused to sell him a camera, leading him to build his own. Both he and Hugo worked from the blueprint of what those before them had done, and created something that moved them.
What moved Hugo to do anything that he does in this movie if not the love of the work Melies created before the war? Sure, the movies are indelibly tied up in Hugo’s memories of his late father, but one need only look at Hugo’s face as he watches a movie with Isabel to see the genuine love and thrill within him at the magic unfolding on screen. What moves Tabard to help the two children he finds conspicuously reading a film history tome if not his own deep and abiding love for the cinema?
What finally softens the heart of both Melies and Mama Jean, his wife, if not the movie they were most proud of finally being returned to them? What finally erodes the false perceptions that keep these two people from coming together and understanding each other, if not the magic of the movies? This is a film entirely about the tremendous power of movies to inspire, move, and heal people. Because of it, a man rediscovers his purpose in life, and a child finally finds a home. Higher than average stakes, sure, but the movies create these emotional moments every single day.
At one point in the film, Melies says that happy endings only happen in the movies. But he’s wrong. As Scorsese makes very plain in this film, happy endings happen because of the movies.