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I know I promised to look at Empire, but I felt I needed a break from the Julio-Claudians. So last night I sat down and rewatched Hugo (2011, dir. Martin Scorsese, based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick).


It’s a charming film about an orphaned boy Hugo (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris at some point in the 1930s, where he maintains the station’s clocks and eludes the station’s inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen), who wants to send him to an orphanage. Hugo’s only possession is a broken automaton that his father was trying to repair when he died in a fire. He develops a complicated love/hate relationship with Georges (Ben Kingsley), who runs the station’s sweet and toy shop and from whom Hugo steals the parts he needs to fix the automaton. Eventually it’s revealed that Georges is actually Georges Mélies, one of the first commerical film-makers in the world. The automaton turns out to be something Georges created when he was a professional stage magician. But when his studio, Star Films, went bankrupt, Mélies lost the automaton as well as everything else except his mistress and later wife, Jeanne d’Alcy (Helen McRory), and was forced to make a living running his small shop in the train station.

Georges Mélies

Mélies (1861-1938) was one of the most important early film-makers, serving as screenwriter, director, actor, and producer, and churning out a staggering 500 films between 1895 and 1913, when bad business decisions left him bankrupt. The Great War put the last nail in the coffin of Star Films, and about 80% of Mélies’ oeuvre was melted down for silver and celluloid, destroying them forever.


Butterfield and Kingsley as Hugo and Georges

Prior to discovering the new medium of film, Mélies had worked as a stage magician, and he brought a magician’s eye to his work as a film-maker. So he specialized in films that told fantastic stories and often employed stage magic tricks. For example, in Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb, considered one of the first horror films, Cleopatra’s mummy is chopped into pieces and then burned in a brazier, from which a woman emerges, while in The Famous Box Trick, a magician cuts a boy in half with an axe, producing two boys, whom he procedures to turn into other things. In his One Man Band, Mélies becomes seven different musicians playing a tune together.

He eventually moved up to telling stories with more complex plots. His most famous work, 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, tells the story of Professor Barbenfouillis, who builds a space-ship in the form of a bullet, which he fires at the moon, striking the Old Man in the Moon right in the eye. The crew nap until the goddess Phoebe causes it to snow on them, forcing them to take refuge in a cavern, where they are taken prisoner by the insect-like Selenites. Escaping, the crew climbs back into the bullet, which falls off a cliff and into the Earth’s ocean, where they are rescued and given a parade to celebrate their accomplishment.


In addition to being one of the first film-makers to tell narrative stories, Mélies also invented a number of simple special effects that he used repeatedly, including multiple exposure (filming something, rewinding the film, and then adding something to the scene, which is how Mélies become seven men playing instruments together), advancing the camera on a track to make something seem to grow in size, split-screen exposure, and dissolves. By putting a fish tank in front of the camera, he created the illusion that he was filming underwater. In his films, men and women turn into skeletons, butterflies, and other creatures, people explode in burst of smoke and sparks, travelers encounter fairies, aliens, and Satan, people take off their heads and argue with them, and many other delightful things happen.

The man was a visionary and for a period the most popular film-maker in the world, and he profoundly infuenced the development of all later film. In many ways, the film is Scorsese’s love-letter to Mélies, and an effort to make sure that this pioneer isn’t forgotten by modern audiences.

The film’s treatment of Mélies is pretty accurate. The middle portion of the film is a reasonably factual, though simplified, account of Mélies’ career. It omits the fact that his brother played an important role in his film company, and it condenses Mélies’ two wives into his second wife Jeanne (his first wife Eugenie having died young in 1913). He really did build an automaton that wound up in a museum where it was ruined. He really did go bankrupt (though less because of the Great War and more because of poor decisions) and wind up running a toy and sweet shop in the Gare Montparnasse. And he really did enjoy a final period in his life when film enthusiasts recognized his enormous contributions to the medium. It’s refreshing to see an historical film that actually tries to get the facts more or less correct.


Georges Mélies

The Train

But in addition to being a wonderful introduction to the work of Mélies, Scorsese has another point to make. Hugo was made in 3D, and Scorsese was trying to get away from the use of 3D to simply make the audience gasp, exploring its potential as a cinematic device. He plays with snow, steam, and a cloud of papers in a way that is reminiscent of the way Mélies played with his film tricks.

The film twice shows the famous early film L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, a brief 1895 film that simply shows a train pulling into a French train station. The film repeats as fact what is quite possibly an urban legend that when the audience saw the train approaching, they panicked because they were unable to distinguish the film from reality because the technology of film was literally brand-new and the audience was unfamiliar with it.

Later in the film, Hugo has a dream in which he finds himself on the train tracks of the Gare Montparnasse as a train is bearing down at him. The train runs him over, jumps the tracks, and plows through the station, plunging out of a window and down to the street below. This scene is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it recreates an actual train accident that happened at the Gare Montparnasse in 1895 (the same year L’Arrivée d’un train was first shown). So Scorsese cleverly conflates the train footage with an actual train crash the same year.


The 1895 Montparnasse derailment

But what I find even more clever about this sequence is that by doing it with the relatively new modern 3D technology, he gives 21st century audiences an experience not unlikely the one the audience in 1895 had, of having a train appear to come hurtling toward them in a way that unnerves the viewer. In a film about the early history of cinema, Scorsese has brilliantly given audiences a sense of what it might have been like to be one of those early film-goers, thus increasing our ability to understand the whole point of the film.


Hugo’s dream of the Montparnasse dereailment

This isn’t the only time Scorsese references early cinema in Hugo. At one point Hugo, fleeing from the station inspector, is forced to climb out onto the minute hand of the station’s largest clock in a scene that directly references Harold Lloyd’s famous stunt in Safety Last. There are also more subtle homages to Buster Keaton’s The General (1926) and Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine (1938). And throughout the film, Scorsese and his team tried to work in as many of the techniques that Mélies pioneered as they could, so that the film’s cinematography and special effects were as much an homage as the story.

Want to Know More? 

Hugo is available through Amazon, as is Selznick’s Caldecott-winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

You should totally watch Mélies’ A Trip to the Moon. It’s on Netflix, and also available through Amazon. Although its special effects are primative by modern standards, it really is a must-see. If you want to know more about Mélies, try Elizabeth Ezra’s Georges Mélies. It’s more a study of his films than a history of the man, but it treats him as a serious film-maker, not just a man playing around with special effects.

If you want to dig a little deeper in the film’s use of visual effects, here is a good page on the subject.