The two most Oscar-nominated flms this year are the fantastic The Artist, the big favourite that has received ten nominations, and Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s first 3D and first family film. It has received eleven nominations, mostly in technical categories, although Best Film and Best Director are also on the list. Curiously, both films are about the past of cinema. But whereas The Artist is a wonderful birthday party, Hugo is a bittersweet eulogy. At its better moments at least.
Because for the longest part of its running time, it is boring, standard fare. My list of things that I dislike about Hugo kicks off with its infuriatingly romanticized, stereotypical representation of 1930s Paris, a quality which the film curiously shares with another overhyped nominee, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But at least Midnight in Paris admitted that this representation was a fantasy. This is literally a film in which the Eiffel tower can be seen from every window in the city.
The second problem is the story, which is strangely two-sided. There is a bit about a young boy – the titular Hugo Cabret – living in the walls of a train station, operating the clocks and trying to rebuild the automaton his late father left him. And when this story is more or less told and done with (after a little more than an hour, a proper running time for a mediocre kids’ flick) another story begins, about an old and bitter shopkeeper and his mysterious past. Needless to say, that story is much more interesting, and I would have loved to see it as a proper drama on itself.
The third problem lies very close to the second problem. It is the actors’ performances. As the depiction of Paris, they are so stereotypical that it hurts. Starting with the young Asa Butterfield (Hugo), who for the sake of his youth will be spared harsh criticism. And continuing with the also-very-young Chloe Moretz, who we have seen in such better form in Kick-Ass and Let Me In. Far more problematic is the supporting role of Sacha Baron Cohen as the station chief, who is a stumbling cliche of a man, and a painfully underused Jude Law as Hugo’s father. The only major cats member who fare better are Sir Christopher Lee as a bookshop owner, also much too little in the picture, and Sir Ben Kingsley, as the ill-fated shopkeeper. Also, what is it with the thick English accents in a film set in Paris? What is the point of that?
The good things then. First of all there is the 3D, which is actually justified in some moments; for instance when showing the inner mechanics of the station clocks, or in flashbacks to the first years of the twentieth century. It isn’t perfect, but it shows at least a bit of potential for the technology. Unfortunately an inferior variety of the technology is used – the one with the heavy glasses that give me headaches – instead of the more common and superior RealD.
The second good thing are those flashbacks, which are the crown jewels of the film and which belong to the second, more interesting, part of the story. Without giving away too much, these are the scenes that won Hugo its Oscar nominations, the technical ones as well as the ‘ major’ ones. They are the ones that won over the hearts of film ‘connaisseurs’ (rather than fans or the regular audience) and members of the Academy. There may be some rewriting of history going on in the process, when the First world War substitutes for copyright struggles and financial misadventures, but that fits the drama and is pardonable.
Director Martin Scorsese is a film connaisseur. A lover of the history of the medium and the art, as his many documentaries on the subject clearly show. In interviews he says that he wanted, for once, to make a film that his children could enjoy, who are too young for Taxi Driver or The Departed. But it was a mistake to make his first 3D film, and an ode to early cinema at the same time. The three objectives fit crudely together, much unlike the perfect mechanisms of the clocks and the automaton.