Martin Scorsese’s run in the 2010s has seen the undisputed master of cinema reach peaks previously unconceived. From The Wolf of Wall Street to Silence to this most recent opus, The Irishman (the film of his lifetime, perhaps), a succession of acclaimed hits from the last decade have ensured Scorsese’s name still remains in the upper echelon of living filmmakers. His 50+ years have been sustained without ever feeling stale, nor easing off the gas for income’s sake. (Quite the contrary, with Scorsese having consistently reinvented and challenged himself over the years.) Yet, within this beloved period of his more recent output, it seems there is one Scorsese feature that continues to go unrecognized for its wider worth — a ‘minor Scorsese’, deemed superfluous to the larger conversation.
Now, Hugo is hardly a film devoid of acclaim. It was met with rave reviews upon release, heralded as a radical step forward in the possibilities of 3D filmmaking, before going onto receive eleven Oscar nominations (and winning five) in the 2012 ceremony. For children and adults alike, Hugo was breathtaking and whimsical, devoted to telling a heartfelt story about the history of cinema through one child. In recent years, though, this initial interest seems to have dissipated — with Hugo instead focused upon solely as a curious artifact in the filmography of an all-time great, lacking the critical interrogations and retrospectives that the likes of Shutter Island are treated to 10 years after release.
At first glance, Hugo seems to be Scorsese’s The Straight Story — a work that, like David Lynch’s 1999 drama, appears to clash with the types of films the director otherwise tends to gravitate towards. Rather than solely aimed at adults, Hugo moves away from the established aesthetics of Scorsese’s classics and aspires for something lighter, though not any less ambitious. Like The Straight Story, though, this is less an outlier in the director’s career than a fundamental lens through which we can understand their wider thematic ideas. It’s a genuine masterpiece.
Films that seek to reimagine cinematic history through a period setting can often suffer from an obsession with nostalgia; its ideas become overwhelmed with a visual awe and the persuasive feeling that the text is about nothing more than a look back at the glory days. There is a place for works that prefer to exist in a space they find aesthetically pleasing, but there is something eternally beautiful to me about filmmakers choosing to reckon with history in order to both understand the present and set up ambitions for the future. In this sense, Scorsese’s Hugo is reminiscent of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, or the wrestling of Hiroshi Tanahashi — dedicated to understanding and pushing the influences of their past. They teach the world about the resources that meant everything to them as young men, through the art form they love, before synthesizing those lessons into something modern and medium-defining.
Though ostensibly a functionalization of Georges Méliès’ (Ben Kingsley) re-embrace of cinema, Scorsese makes sure Hugo isn’t just limited to the story of one man. The focus on his emotional connection is constantly matched against the journeys of the children in his life — Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) — who experience different yet equally powerful moments of cinematic catharsis. Scorsese beautifully contrasts the journey of Hugo, trying to find a key to open his late father’s automaton, with the broken-down and resentful Méliès slowly gravitating back towards his passion for filmmaking. Their gradual connection grounds the narrative of the film in devotion to the importance of art and creation — to the people who find meaning in the world around them by tinkering and crafting something out of nothing.
It’s not just in creation that Hugo finds beauty, but in the sharing and collaborating in search of that vision. A flashback early on finds a younger Hugo spending time with his adoring father (Jude Law) as he shows his son the beauty and detail that goes into a clock’s mechanics. His father’s passion for what he does exudes from his lips, his eyes lighting up as he spews about the specifics of the device. Butterfield nails that overwhelming feeling of sitting beside your father, enamored by his presence and taking every word that he speaks into your heart as though it’s the gospel. Hugo’s father’s death comes as a genuine loss for the viewer, such is the warmth and healthiness of their relationship in what isn’t much screen-time. It hurts to see it end so soon.
Hugo’s subsequent struggles with life as an orphan, practically abandoned by his drunk uncle, are especially challenging in the hectic environment of an 1930s Parisian railway station. Both the personal and physical changes in his life are set against a world in a state of complete flux, with the trains getting bigger and faster, the after-effects of one war beginning to set in motion another — and the movies themselves are gaining sound. Hugo similarly finds himself in a seemingly endless state of transition, with nothing remaining the same or giving him stability except for his automaton, something that he can always cling onto in times of pain. It’s a similar dependency that many film obsessives have with the medium; it can be an outlet in our worst moments to lose ourselves into craft and imagery for a couple hours, and a force to keep us balanced when it seems like nothing else can. Hugo gets that need for stability better than most films.
The relationship with cinema itself as a source of that comfort and beautiful escapism is channeled in distinct ways through Méliès and Isabelle, his goddaughter. Isabelle’s life has been defined, in some sense, by her removal from the cinema. Her godfather’s history in filmmaking makes confrontation with its evolution difficult, especially given she was never allowed to see images projected. When Hugo first takes her to the theatre, it’s hard not to think about our own first encounter: when we first looked at that big screen and couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing. Scorsese shoots this with a childlike glee, naturally, as though the prospect of another child finding love in the medium he has devoted his life to makes it all worth it.
Méliès’ development is more complicated. For the first half of the film, he is stoic and rigid — not showing much emotion beyond a bitterness and general disdain for Hugo’s consistent presence. As the narrative unfolds, though, more is revealed about his past: we see sequences of him creating films, the extravagance of himself, his wife and their crew engaging with every dream and fantasy they’ve ever had. They made their own costumes, painted their own colors, and made the decision to fly to the moon. It is such a perfectly directed sequence, with Scorsese capturing the ecstatic joy of realizing that you have all the freedom in the world. When Méliès is allowed to revisit these moments and images in the coda, his eyes well up — in just a few seconds, his childhood comes back to life. As Méliès, Kingsley captures a seemingly impossible emotion: the instant evaporation of decades of grief, conveyed entirely through his eyes and gleeful smile.
As much as Hugo is about creation, it’s also about family. It cares about the embrace between these people, who’ve built their own world in spite of many tragedies and so many obstacles, and who are able to come together as both artists and family. Our connection to art is often influenced and defined by those people in our lives that mean something; the memory of watching your dad’s favorite film with him on that old sofa, or sitting outside in the night sky while an old film is projected beneath the stars. Hugo understands that nothing can mean anything without other people — that art becomes more beautiful when you have someone to share it with.
In a certain way, Hugo can even be thought of as an optimistic alternative to how Scorsese’s The Irishman concluded — this time, we see a man finding comfort in his old age through the love and devotion of the people around him, instead of fading into dust, alone and haunted. Scorsese’s late-career has been so focused on the impact that those you love have on your life, but Hugo is an exception in that those relationships end with optimism and sustained connection. Being able to watch Méliès’ react to a crowd finally appreciating work he thought was gone forever, before staring at his children and knowing that they’ll be with him to create endless beautiful memories together… that’s everything meaningful about life and love in just a few seconds.