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“It Will Always Be Broken!” The Strange Melancholy of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, has been running a season of coverage of director Martin Scorsese. Last weekend, we discussed Scorsese’s Hugo. It’s a fun, broad discussion. However, watching the film and talking about the film got me thinking about the film’s strange melancholy.

Martin Scorsese is a more complex and nuanced filmmaker than a casual glimpse at his filmography might suggest.

The clichéd depiction of Scorsese is largely shaped and defined by his most popular movies: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, CasinoGangs of New York, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Irishman. Based on these films, there is a tendency to pigeonhole Scorsese as a director who makes violent films about violent men, usually filtered through the lens of the seedy underbelly of organised crime or urban decay. This does not quite capture the breadth and the scope of Scorsese’s interests.

Indeed, Scorsese is a much more interesting filmmaker than that list of classics might suggest, reflected in films as diverse as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, New York, New York, The Last Waltz, After Hours, The Colour of Money, Age of InnocenceThe Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and The Aviator. However, even allowing for that range, Hugo stands out as an oddity in Scorsese’s filmography. The film was something of a flop when it was released opposite The Muppets, and is often glossed over in accounts of Scorsese’s career and history.

This is shame. Hugo suffers slightly from arriving in the midst of a late career renaissance for Scorsese that includes some of the best and most successful films that the director ever produced: The Departed, Shutter Island, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Irishman. In the context of that body of work, Hugo is often overlooked. This is a shame, as it’s a magical and wonderful film. It manages to be a children’s film as only Martin Scorsese could produce, suffused with a melancholy and introspection that is rare in the genre.

Of course, even practically, Hugo feels like it should be a lynchpin of Scorsese’s twenty-first century output. Scorsese is known for the long-term relationship that he has formed with actors, often using actors multiple times. Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio are perhaps the most obvious and famous examples, but there are also supporting players like Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. More than that, there are also character actors who just pop up a couple of times, such as Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi, Barbara Hershey, Daniel Day Lewis, Alec Baldwin and John C. Reilly.

Hugo is interesting in this context, because it serves as something of a collection point for a number of Scorsese’s late career collaborators. A variety of actors from Scorsese’s then-recent films pop up in small roles in Hugo. Ben Kingsley and Emily Mortimer return from Shutter Island. Ray Winston returns from The Departed. Michael Stuhlbarg re-teams with the director following his casting Boardwalk Empire and The Key to Reserva. Jude Law has a small role following his small role in The Aviator.

Of course, this reunion is not as notable as Scorsese re-teaming with early and definitive collaborators like DeNiro, Pesci and Keitel in The Irishman, and the absence of Leonardo DiCaprio makes it harder to recognise this ensemble as one built on previous collaborators, but it is still interesting. It lends Hugo something of a vague nostalgic quality, a sense of reflectiveness that fits with the overall tone of the piece. There is a sense in which the intersection of all these collaborators on Hugo feels like the party that closes the film, the celebration of a found family.

After all, Hugo arrived at a point in Scorsese’s career that began with The Aviator, the director suggesting that he only had so many films left in him. Of course, Scorsese still had plenty of life left in him, with critic Robbie Collin describing his next film, The Wolf of Wall Street, as “a picture that would have exhausted a director half his age.” However, Scorsese’s later career has been defined by a certain anxiety. He had to move to streaming to fund The Irishman, and he became caught up in debates about the future of cinema as a medium beyond comic book blockbusters.

On the surface, Scorsese would appear to be an odd fit for Hugo. In fact, like quite a few of the director’s late projects, Scorsese seemed to come to the project almost by accident. Chris Wedge, the director of Ice Age and Robots, was the original choice to direct the film. Wedge’s career would intersect again with Scorsese’s a few years after Hugo, when the financial failure of Wedge’s Monster Trucks and Scorsese’s Silence would contribute to a radical and dramatic upheaval at Paramount Pictures.

Scorsese reportedly signed on to Hugo after his wife joked, “Make a film your kid can see for once.” Scorsese has been very candid that Hugo was a film inspired by and directed for his youngest daughter, Francesca, explaining, “The film also has to do with the development of my youngest daughter’s imagination.” This perhaps explains why Scorsese would make a movie that is, superficially at least, quite far removed from the standard trappings and framework of a traditional Scorsese film.

Indeed, the film’s extended opening sequence – which finds the title character moving through the hidden spaces of a Parisian train station in a series of long and dynamic takes – feels like it belongs a Steven Spielberg film. There’s a sense of childhood wonder and magic as the camera follows young Hugo Caberet through these invisible areas, making his way to the clock tower that overlooks the entire city. It is a breathtaking sequence, one that seems quite distinct from equivalent long-take-driven sequences in films like Goodfellas or Gangs of New York.

Of course, Hugo is a film by Martin Scorsese. It quickly reveals itself as such. Reflecting Scorsese’s own interests in the history of cinema – evident throughout his work, but perhaps most obvious in documentaries like A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies or films like The Aviator – the mystery that drives Hugo ultimately evolves into an exploration of the lost history of cinema. The grumpy old man who mans a kiosk at the station is revealed to be director Georges Méliès, and the film culminates in the rediscovery of Méliès as an artist.

Hugo reflects Scorsese’s love of cinema as a medium. Indeed an early conversation between Hugo and Isabelle about the majesty of film and its transformative power plays almost like a family-friendly version of the conversation between J.R. and his date in Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Over the course of the movie, Hugo and Isabelle sneak into a cinema screening and conduct research at the film library. The film historian René Tabard even plays as a stand-in for Scorsese himself, with actor Michael Stuhlbarg growing out his eyebrows for the role as “a tribute.”

Even beyond the film’s thematic preoccupations, Scorsese draws heavily from classic cinema in constructing the movie. The film’s poster, in which Hugo dangles from the hand of a clock over Paris, is a direct allusion to Harold Lloyd’s famous stunt from Safety Last. Not only do the characters discuss the “founding myth” surrounding Arrival of a Train, Scorsese even recreates it within one of Hugo’s nightmares. Playing Inspector Gustave Dasté, Sacha Baron Cohen heavily improvises, in a way that directly evokes the jokes of silent cinema. (There are even dog reaction shots.)

However, even beyond this core thematic element, Hugo is a children’s movie that feels very much of a piece with the rest of Scorsese’s filmography. Indeed, this is obvious with the character of Hugo himself. The character is introduced as a voyeur, somebody watching and observing the world around him – whether the lives of the characters populating the station or the city of Paris beneath him. As Manohla Dargis pointed out, this image resonates with Scorsese’s accounts of his own childhood, and with imagery of Henry Hill in Goodfellas and the Dalai Llama in Kundun.

More than that, there is a profound melancholy that permeates Hugo, one which feels very strange in the context of a family film and which is perhaps one more reason that Hugo failed to win over the family audience that flocked to The Muppets instead. Hugo has lived a horrible life, one marked by trauma and loss. His mother died when he was young. His father perished in a freak accident at the museum. The neglectful uncle who took him in disappeared and drowned drunk in the Seine.

Of course, these are the sorts of background details that shape and define many young adult protagonists. Many superhero origin stories involve the death of parents, if only for the pragmatic reason that young heroes need to be able to come and go in a way that isn’t necessarily practical when they are under the watchful eye of a loving guardian. However, most of these tragedies unfold in the abstract and at a remove from the action. Hugo is surprisingly blunt in its portrayal of the traumas that the eponymous character has endured.

The audience is not simple told that Hugo’s father died in a freak accident. Instead, the audience watches as his father sees a massive fire ball rushing up the stairs towards him, making the details of his fate particularly unpleasant; he did not suffocate in the fire, he was burnt alive. Similarly, it is not enough that Hugo’s uncle disappears from the story. Instead, Scorsese is careful to show the local authorities fishing the body out of the river.

This mournful tone is reinforced through Asa Butterfield’s central performance. As with Haley Joel Osmond in The Sixth Sense, Butterfield brings an unusual weariness and maturity to the film’s protagonist. However, The Sixth Sense was not designed as a children’s film. There is a sense that Hugo has been scarred, which makes a great deal of sense given the life that he has lived. This is obvious even within the film, when Butterfield’s performance is contrasted with that of his co-star Chloë Grace Moretz, who offers a much more archetypal performance for a lead in a film like this.

As the title suggests, Hugo is built around its protagonist. However, his melancholy inflects the rest of movie around him. Many of the cast are similarly traumatised. The consequences of the First World War linger. The station’s flower lady, Lisette, lost her brother at the Battle of Verdun. Dasté himself was physically (and implicitly mentally) scarred by what he experienced on the battlefield. When his leg brace buckles while smelling some flowers, he bluntly tells Lisette, “You see, I was injured in the war,and it will never heal.”

It’s the second part of that statement that lingers, the understanding that these traumas and injuries are not always magically erased. Hugo understands that these scars are never completely healed, even if people are allowed a temporary reprieve. Superficially, the ending of Hugo is almost comically happy. Characters pair off, friendships are forged, wounds are soothed. In the grand tradition of children’s movie, even the dogs seems to end up in fulfilling romantic relationships. However, there is a palpable sense of unease lurking beneath this seemingly wholesome facade.

After all, the romance between Lisette and Dasté is parallelled with the late-in-life romance between Madame Emile and Monsieur Frick. They two are happy together, but it’s interesting to wonder how long they might have, particularly in contrast to the younger cast. Those cast members who do live longer will likely face their own horrors and traumas. The First World War is a source of trauma for the characters, but the peace that they enjoy is only temporary. The Second World War looms in the distance, and the horror it brought to the City of Light.

Hugo unfolds in Paris in 1931. Hugo Cabret is twelve years old. This means that Hugo will be twenty-one years old, on the cusp of adulthood, as the Second World War consumes Europe. Hugo is likely to have a similar experience to that of Dasté. Even if Hugo does not die in combat, he is likely to live under Nazi occupation of France, and possibly even fight as a member of the resistance. It seems likely that any contentment he has found is temporary. After all, Hugo is set against the backdrop of an era largely known as “the interwar period”, defined by events at its extremes.

Hugo suggests that even concrete objects can be impermanent as human lives. So much of Hugo is motivated by Georges Méliès, the great director who has faded into relative obscurity. Méliès was, in his own way, a victim of the First World War. (René Tabard reports that Méliès “died during the Great War.” He is technically incorrect, but there is some truth in the idea.) Méliès recalls watching his films being literally destroyed and melted down “to make shoe heels.” In his frustration, Méliès burns what remains of his work and donates an automaton to a local museum.

Of course, Hugo ends with Méliès being rediscovered. Tabard is able to screen a print of A Trip to the Moon for him. Méliès is treated as a guest of honour and welcomed as “the newest member of the Film Academy faculty.” In a moving montage, the audience is treated to a variety of clips from the surviving of the work of the real Méliès. It is a triumphant moment, and it has a certain resonance in the context of Martin Scorsese as a director in the midst of an impressive second (or third or fourth) act of his career.

After all, Scorsese had only truly been recognised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences relatively late in his career. Despite making an incredible career spanning decades, Scorsese only managed to win Best Director and Best Picture with The Departed in 2006. (It is no small irony that the awards campaign that finally won Scorsese his Oscar was effectively a “non-campaign.”) In hindsight, Scorsese’s victory has come to be seen as a cumulative career award, an impression solidified by the choice to have Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola hand over the Best Director statue.

However, such late-career success can be fleeting. Scorsese was arguably at his commercial peak when he made Hugo. His three previous films had been huge financial successes. The Aviator was Scorsese’s highest grossing film to that point, until it was surpassed by The Departed. Then Shutter Island surpassed it, also earning star Leonardo DiCaprio’s biggest opening weekend to that point. This is the sort of success of which directors dream.

In theory, The Departed and Shutter Island should have put paid to Scorsese’s anxieties that he would never be a populist, universally loved and lauded filmmaker, something that had haunted him since the failure of New York, New York. However, Scorsese still appeared to be insecure. In contemporary interviews, he appeared to have been somewhat shocked by the divided critical reaction to Shutter Island. More than that, it is notable that Scorsese was somehow at the peak of his career and struggling to get movies made.

The production process around The Departed had been very tough on the director, who reflected, “I mean, I like the picture, but the process of making it, particularly in the post-production, was highly unpleasant.” Similarly, Shutter Island was famously delayed by over a year because Paramount didn’t have the budget to release it in the wake of the Great Recession and did not see it as a viable Oscar contender – they threw their weight behind The Lovely Bones and Up in the Air instead.

Despite the fact that Scorsese was a director enjoying as much commercial success as ever, he still struggled to get his projects made in the conventional studio system. He had been trying to get a studio to sign off on The Wolf of Wall Street for years, to no avail. Scorsese would eventually have to accept outside funding to make the movie. Indeed, starting with Hugo, Scorsese’s next three films would rely on sources of funding outside the conventional studio system. His next two films would go directly to streaming. (Hugo would also, sadly, flop at the box office.)

Even within the context of Hugo itself, it is notable how many silent films have been completely losta detail familiar to Scorsese as a major advocate for film preservation. Indeed, it isn’t only films from the distant past that have been lost, there are films that have been lost since the seventies. That is to say, that films from within the period of Scorsese’s career have been lost to history. That idea of impermanence is baked into the fabric of Hugo. This melancholy pervades the films from its earliest scenes, as Hugo stalks Méliès on his way home through a graveyard.

After all, Hugo is not only about cinema – it is about time. The film’s central metaphors are all built around clockwork. Hugo Cabret maintains all of the clocks in the old railway station, and those same clockwork gears power the automaton. When Hugo climbs to the top of the station to look out over the city, he is framed inside a giant clock. Time passes. Things change. It is odd for a children’s film to be so fascinated with the flow of time as an inevitability. After all, even after his uncle dies, Hugo ensures that the clocks within the station keep ticking.

Indeed, there is a sense in which Hugo captures a world in transition. Initially, Hugo seems to see the world in terms of clockwork mechanics like the automaton. He believes that everything fits within the larger structure. “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine,” he explains at one point. “Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.”

Scorsese’s camera emphasises this idea in the film’s opening moments, guiding the viewer through the physical spaces that make up the world – the corridors, the causeways, the pipes, the gears. There are spaces in this world, and Hugo himself seems to contort himself to fit into those spaces, using the service shafts and air vents of the station to avoid detection. His world is physically confined by material realities.

In some ways, this reflects the historical setting of the movie around Hugo. Hugo unfolds about a decade before the Second World War, which would offer a seismic and fundamental shift to how people conceived of the world. This shift, and the challenge that it posed to those living through it and trying to make sense of it, had been a major recurring thematic preoccupation of Scorsese’s previous film, Shutter Island.

The world order had shifted with the Great War: Russia had been subject to a socialist revolution; the United States had established itself as a global superpower; the Ottoman Empire collapsed. There was social upheaval. However, there was still some continuity with what had come before: the United States largely retreated into isolationism; the British Empire struggled on despite increased calls for independence in its international territories; Soviet Russia turned its gaze inwards to focus on the doctrine of “socialism in one country.” As such, it was a transitional stage.

In contrast, the culture shocks that would follow the Second World War would be much more profound: the dismantling of the British Empire, the independence of French colonies in Algiers and Vietnam, the start of the Cold War between the United States and Russia. On top of this political reconfiguring, there were more fundamental and existential revelations: the horror of the industrialised attempted extermination of the Holocaust and the apocalyptic power of the atomic bomb. The world would change quickly, with computers and televisions.

As a result, a lot of the central assumptions that earlier generations had taken for granted were just wiped away. To use Hugo’s machine analogy, none of the pieces fit together in the way that they had before. This is reflected in any number of arbitrary metrics about life after the Second World War, most notably in the idea of “civic engagement” that socialist Robert Putnam has argued to have been in decline since the early 1960s. (This sense of purpose and belonging is a recurring motif of Scorsese’s work, most obviously in Taxi Driver.)

Hugo communicates this seismic shift visually. The opening shot finds the clockwork gears that drive so much of the film literally morphing into an overhead shot of Paris by night, the City of Lights. What was once physical has become quantum, metal gears transformed into streaks of light. It is a beautiful shot that seems to suggest the limits of Hugo’s world view. Hugo believes that the world is a giant clockwork machine, but Hugo suggests that it is something rather more complex and abstract.

In the context of Hugo as a film about the history of cinema, this is an interesting shift. Hugo arrived at a time when the film industry was beginning to push away from film and towards digital photography. It was moving away from a process that was tangible and material, and towards something more abstract and quantum. Films would no longer exist as physical objects, but as digits in code. It’s interesting to read Hugo as a reflection of the tumultuous change within cinema itself.

After all, Scorsese shot Hugo in 3D. This would turn out to be an evolutionary dead end, but it suggested that the medium was an a state of flux. Indeed, there was a palpable sense of cinematic nostalgia running through many of the year’s films, including Hugo: The Artist, My Weekend with Marilyn, War Horse. This tends to happen at times when Hollywood feels uncertain about its future. Although that uncertainty would only increase over the following decade, critics like A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis were able to point to the ascent of Netflix as a cause of concern.

This uncertainty is reflected within Hugo in the idea of “meaning” that runs through Hugo’s journey. Hugo spends much of the film obsessed with the automaton that his father was working to fix. Trying to explain his fixation, he tells Isabelle, “I know it’s silly, but I think it’s going to be a message from my father.” Hugo’s right to point to the absurdity that his father might have coded a message into the automaton. However, he is also right that there is a message for him within the machine. That message leads him to Méliès and serves to tie together the film’s found family.

However, in keeping with the film’s central cinematic metaphor, the “meaning” of the automaton is imposed from outside. It turns out that the automaton was designed by Méliès to draw a beautiful illustration from his own film A Trip to the Moon. It also, by coincidence, turns out that Hugo’s father had lovingly described seeing A Trip to the Moon as a child. As such, the illustration offers a connection between Hugo and his deceased father that Méliès could never have foreseen or predicted. There is meaning and substance in the automaton, but entirely accidentally.

In some ways, this reflects the beauty of cinema. After all, one of the joys of watching a film is the art of deriving meaning from it, attempting to discern what the images and sounds come together to say. In many cases, this is a very literal act of interpretation. Hugo is the story of an orphan wandering through thirties Paris. However, the emotional impact of those images and sounds on a person will vary dramatically from one case to another. A film may take on a profoundly personal meaning to one viewer, while leaving another entirely cold.

This also fits with the theme of spirituality that runs through so much of Scorsese’s work, the question of what it means to have a soul and to find meaning in the world. This question obviously bubbles to the surface more directly in Silence, but it simmers through Hugo as well. There’s an inherent religious aspect to Hugo’s vision of the world as a giant clockwork machine, recalling the famous religious parable of the watchmaker. After all, if Hugo believes that the world is a machine with no spare parts, then who designed that machine?

Scorsese is famously a Catholic filmmaker, having even attended seminary. However, as demonstrated by films like The Last Temptation of Christ or Silence, Scorsese understands that doubt and ambiguity are an integral part of religious belief. Faith would not be faith if it were proven or assured. Meaning is not necessarily imposed from outside for an individual to process, instead the act of determining meaning from the world is an integral part of the religious experience.

As such, Hugo rejects any analogy as literal as the watchmaker, instead suggesting the meaning is derived rather than given. The characters in Hugo do not have an assured or predetermined place in the world. Instead, they must find their place. It is a surprisingly mature central metaphor for a movie ostensibly aimed at children, the idea that the world does not always have a place for people and that they must sometimes carve out a space (or find meaning) for themselves rather than on relying on it being provided for them.

This is the beauty of Hugo, one of the most distinct and odd children’s movies of the twenty-first century. Indeed, Hugo often feels like a children’s movie forged with decades of experience, a desire of an older filmmaker looking back nostalgically on childhood and seeking to communicate the hard-earned lessons of a life within the framework of a movie aimed at kids. Hugo is a children’s movie about the passage of time, about death, about decay, about collapse, about how so much of life is temporary, and about how meaning is inherently subjective.

In hindsight, it’s easy to understand why Hugo couldn’t compete with The Muppets at the box office. Nevertheless, Hugo has aged remarkably well. Like so many of Scorsese’s films, it is a film that rewards return and repeat viewings, often seeming to grow up with its audience.

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