“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” - Jean-Luc Godard
Georges Méliès was born on December 8, 1861, Paris, France and died January 21, 1938, Paris. He was an early French experimenter with motion pictures, the first to film fictional narratives. When the first genuine movies, made by the Lumière brothers, were shown in Paris in 1895, Méliès, a professional magician and manager-director of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, was among the spectators. The films were scenes from real life having the novelty of motion, but Méliès saw at once their further possibilities. He acquired a camera, built a glass-enclosed studio near Paris, wrote scripts, designed ingenious sets, and used actors to film stories. With a magician's intuition, he discovered and exploited the basic camera tricks: Stop motion, slow motion, dissolve, fade-out, superimposition, and double exposure.
From 1899 to 1912 Méliès made more than 400 films, the best of which combine illusion, comic burlesque, and pantomime to treat themes of fantasy in a playful and absurd fashion. He specialised in depicting extreme physical transformations of the human body (such as the dismemberment of heads and limbs) for comic effect. His films included pictures as diverse as Cléopâtre (1899; “Cleopatra”), Le Christ Marchant sur les Eaux (1899; “Christ Walking on the Waters”), Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902; “A Trip to the Moon”), Le Voyage à Travers l’ Impossible (1904; “The Voyage Across the Impossible”); and Hamlet (1908). He also filmed studio reconstructions of news events as an early kind of newsreel. It never occurred to him to move the camera for close-ups or long shots. The commercial growth of the industry forced him out of business in 1913, and he died in poverty.
I start Movie Monday with Méliès’ biography as the film that I will review revolves around his life. We watched Martin Scorsese’s 2011 “Hugo” at the weekend, starring Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen and Christopher Lee. The screenplay was by John Logan based on the novel by Brian Selznick.
The film has generated quite a controversial response from movie-goers giving rise to as much negative criticism as to passionate plaudits. This may have much to do with the way that it was marketed and the way in which people’s expectations were fanned before viewing it. The film’s tagline is: “One of the most legendary directors of our time takes you on an extraordinary adventure.” The marketing hype centred on the word adventure and many of the viewers went to the theatre expecting to see a film like one of the Harry Potter series or one of the Narnia films. However, the film is an adventure on a more cerebral level and is the tribute of a great director to one of movie-making’s great pioneers, Méliès.
There is a story of course, to dress the film up, and a very good story it is too, appealing to adults as much as it does to children: Hugo (Butterfield) is an orphan boy living in the secret passages and rooms behind the walls of a central train station in 1930s Paris. Hugo’s father (Jude Law, in a cameo role) was a clockmaker who taught his son to fix clocks and other gadgets. Once his father dies, Hugo’s uncle takes him to the train station and after his uncle disappears Hugo keeps the train station clocks running and stealing food to survive. The only thing Hugo has left that connects him to his dead father is an automaton that doesn’t work without a special key which Hugo needs to find to unlock the secret he believes it contains. On his adventures, he meets with a shopkeeper, Georges Méliès (Kingsley), who works in the train station and his adventure-seeking god-daughter (Moretz). Hugo finds that he and Isabelle have a surprising connection to his father and the automaton, and he discovers the automaton brings some painful memories the old man has buried deep inside him.
The film is beautifully shot and the cinematography, special effects and CGI are used extremely well to propel the story. As one would expect, the film is directed with panache and one can feel the love that has gone into this movie. Scorsese supposedly made this movie for his 12-year-old daughter and as he also pays tribute to one of his great cinematic forebears one can imagine that a lot of heart went into this film. The acting is wonderful, with young Asa Butterfield truly starring in the action, with Chloë Moretz providing good support, although she does tend to over-enthuse in some of the scenes looking like an over-eager puppy. Kinglsey does a great job as Méliès and Christopher Lee has an interesting little cameo as a bookshop owner. Jude Law is also perfect as young Hugo’s father. Sacha Baron Cohen is perfect as the film’s villain – the Train Station’s overenthusiastic security guard – who wishes to capture Hugo and send him to the orphanage. Dante Ferreti’s production design is quite astounding with costumes, sets and a sympathetic Howard Shore score giving the film authentic atmosphere and ambience.
A bonus of the film is the interpolation, at key points, of scenes from old movies. Méliès’s, of course, but also some of the other silent era greats, including the iconic scene of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above the street in “Safety Last!” (1923). This scene is recreated as Hugo scales the clock-tower of the train station to escape from the clutches of the Train Inspector (Cohen). One should not fail to add that a constant theme running through the movie is the comment on “man versus machine”. The clockwork, the mechanical man and Hugo’s search for love and a family play on this theme and needless to say are a comment on Méliès’ art having been superseded by the professional and “modern” film studios.
We loved this film and were totally enthralled by it, its two hours duration passing easily and pleasantly. There are many layers in the film and numerous beautiful moments. It is a great tribute to the art of movie-making made by a master director. The interweaving stories of the plot serve as a perfect foil for Scorsese to showcase his art and at the same time give homage to Méliès. Don’t expect a swash-buckling adventure, but rather and adventure of the heart and soul.