Martin Scorsese's 2011 film Hugo is as unexpected a film as it is beautiful. Far more famous for his tales of gritty American urban life - Raging Bull, Goodfellows and more recently Gangs of New York - Scorsese picked for his subject a more fanciful tale of vintage France that one might better expect from a Jean Pierre Jeunet. Based on a semi-graphic children's novel by Brian Selznick, Hugo cleaned up at the Oscars with the most nominations of any film at the 84th Academy Awards, including a nomination for Best Picture. It won five of them, including the highly coveted Best Sound Editing (I appear to jest, but a sampling of Best Sound Editing winners juxtaposed with Best Picture nominees proves that Sound Editing is the de facto Best Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror or War Picture category: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Aliens, Back to the Future, Robocop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Terminator 2, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Matrix, The Incredibles, Jurassic Park... The Dark Knight took this award away despite being shut out of Best Picture, which went to the transparently Oscar-baiting Slumdog Millionaire).
Moreover, what appeared to be a heightened reality tale of clockwork Science Fiction was revealed to be a loving testament to one cinema's unsung legends, Georges Méliès. Best Picture that year went to The Artist, which demonstrates that it was at least the year for Hollywood to look back upon itself and the history of filmmaking. Besides that deliberately crafted silent film, Hugo offered another chance to see a silent classic on the silver screen. I must confess to welling up at the brief clip of A Trip to the Moon rendered large and in 3D.
Though named for the character of Hugo Cabret, a young boy living in the main train station of Paris, Hugo is truly a film about Méliès. After the untimely loss of his father, Hugo is forced to live with his drunken uncle, tending the clocks of Gare Montparnasse. After his uncle disappears, the boy is left to scrounge and thieve for the necessities of life, as well as for parts to repair an automaton found by his father in the attic of a museum. This clockwork man is capable of writing and looks for all intents and purposes to be functional, save for a key to turn him on.
The hunt for parts led Hugo into the clutches of an unassuming and sad-looking toy salesman with a stall in the station. For some reason he seems to be familiar with sketches of the automaton. More mysteriously yet, the toy salesman's goddaughter holds the key to the automaton. Upon activation, the mechanical man does more than write: it renders a full illustration of the moon being hit in the eye with a rocket capsule.
From here the detective story unfolds into a tale of the failure, bitterness and redemption that marked the last decades of Georges Méliès life. Unable to compete with copyright infringements and the progress of cinematic art in the United States, Méliès produced his last films in 1912, including Cinderella, The Knight of the Snows and Conquest of the North Pole. Despondent, Méliès destroyed nearly all of his sets and negatives, compounding his loss. Fading into obscurity, he eked out a living as a candy and toy salesman in Gare Montparnasse Station.
Hugo provides a fictionalized look at Méliès' rediscovery. In historical reality, it was the work of several journalists investigating the history of French cinema that tracked him down to his stall in the late Twenties. Recognition for his contributions slowly grew, culminating in a gala retrospective performance in 1929 and the Legion of Honour in 1931. Reassuming his place in the French film community, Méliès never made another film but did help to guide a new generation of filmmakers and became the first conservator of the Cinémathèque Francaise, France's film museum and archive. He eventually passed away from cancer in 1938.
A charming variation of Méliès' story, well-suited to the work of the maestro himself, Hugo perhaps shines best as a testament to him that may once more renew interest in his works. I can attest to several friends who subsequently asked me to elaborate on this pioneer of cinema and screen selections from his complete works DVDs currently offered by Flicker Alley. This is not to diminish Scorsese's accomplishment, but to acknowledge that like any biographical film, it works ideally when it leads you back to its source.