Sometimes the greatest discoveries come not when we break new ground and venture off into unchartered territory. No, sometimes they come when we remember, when we venture back into those pathways long trodden underfoot by history.
Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo, celebrates this look backward. The titular character, a pre-teen, melancholic boy who lives in the Paris train station during the 1930s, spends his days winding the station’s clocks—a job he inherited from a drunken uncle—and focusing completely on recapturing a blissful past in close communion with his father, now dead. Also in the halls of the train station is Georges, an older, melancholic man who runs a toy shop. Early on, we know little of Georges’ past, but his bitterness is clear, even if we don’t know the cause.
For Hugo and Georges, the present has become a cruel burden, as their yearning for the joys of the past threatens to be (in the case of Hugo) or already has been (in the case of Georges) lost. These two people, man and child, are linked by their glorious pasts and painful presents. However, though they share this link, they initially repulse one another. Both downcast of spirit, Georges is content with his frustrated existence. Hugo, on the other hand, has a tangible reminder of the past, one that keeps his hope flickering, even as the odds are stacked against him.
Hugo has retained but one object of his father’s: a life-sized automaton that Hugo’s father believed, once repaired, would write something. They had been working on the repair when Hugo lost his dad, and the boy now dreams of receiving a message from his father if he could just get the machine working again. He lacks only a heart-shaped key to turn on the works.
When Hugo’s lone friend, Isabel, provides the key, not only is the automaton set into motion, but so too is a series of events that we hope will rekindle his, and Georges’ joy for life, despite their many losses. That Scorsese landed on a story—written by a distant relative of the famous producer of old, David O. Selznick—that roots those joys in the appreciation of cinematic history and the power of the image to bring life and happiness to so many should not be surprising. Scorsese’s efforts to preserve films in danger of being lost have done much to raise awareness and materially benefit the films we can now access. Hugo’s journey to receiving and then understanding the message of the automaton illustrate an unquestionable connection to these impulses in Scorsese.
Further, the tale’s unmistakably cinematic presentation shows a deep awareness of, and even reliance on the techniques and camera movements of the silent cinema. From the opening sequence of the film, the dialogue serves to compliment the image, but it is the image which remains primary. Scorsese tells much more with those images than anyone speaks in the film, this itself an achievement of the highest order in any film, much less a popular entertainment for all ages.
Hugo offers a compelling story, seasoned with eccentric characters, taking us on a journey from paradise, to burden, and ultimately to an otherworldly vision of joy and bliss. I cannot recommend this highly enough.