That’s what the master, Martin Scorsese seems to be saying to the modern filmmakers. He is saying that with a lot of panache himself, in a modern film utilizing some of the current and futuristic techniques but something that recalls a lost age in films and filmmaking with bucket loads of passionate love. If this is not a love letter to cinema, I don’t know what is. It is also him being cheeky. When Hugo says with a thoughtful grin of a kid just having stumbled upon something wonderful, “We need to have some…..panache”, there is a self appreciative tone to it in Isabelle’s reply, “Panache!…Well done!”.
Hugo is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. For all the effects and cinematography, the film’s triumph lies in the way it marries the sleight of frame with the its high emotional quotient. The aforementioned line works for several reasons, one of them being how it evokes another beautiful scene earlier in the film. The first time Isabelle and Hugo bond is in the station library. Isabelle is an obvious bibliophile and is excited by the adventure prospects of Hugo’s inscrutable nature. There is poetry in standstill when she says, “And I think we need to be….” and pauses for seconds to say, chewing and enjoying every syllable, “..clandestine.” She’s using the word for the first time and the nonchalant Hugo looks on, clearly not sharing the joy. It’s an intimate sequence that slowly unravels the enigmatic Hugo with the help of the gregarious Isabelle. It ends with a motherly Isabelle, displaying shades of intellectual snobbery as she reprimands Hugo, “Don’t you like books?!”.
This is Scorsese’s first PG rated film in eighteen years. There are no gangsters and no heads blown off. But the craftsmanship is intact and the mastery is visible in every scene. The combination of phantasmagorical imagery with delightful characters lends itself to a film that borders on fantasy. The color palette may not be vast but the tone and the texture of everything in Paris, from the aerial view of the city, the interiors of the station, the insides of a clock tower and the footage of George Melies’s films suggests a familiar world but in a parallel universe. The beginning of the film sets high standards for everything to follow as we move from the skies of Paris to the hustle and bustle of the railway station only to rest on the innocent and tranquil eyes of Hugo, behind a clock, betraying the collective mood of the station. This also alludes to the somewhat voyeuristic nature of the character and the film, as he observes the regulars at the station below from the comforts of his clock tower, as he watches and loves movies – an art form that this film celebrates – the very art form that is synonymous with voyeurism.
Hugo is meta in many other aspects. The main theme of the film is life and its purpose and what one goes through when that is lost, and this is metaphorically juxtaposed with the working of clocks and machines. Much like how no part of a machine is a purposeless extra, no shot of Hugo is wasted. It’s a carefully scripted/adapted film right down to every angle. There isn’t a single extra scene that could have been done away with or anything added, at least from the point of view of someone who’s not exactly familiar with the book. In this aspect, Hugo works pretty much like clockwork.
Scorsese’s other achievement here is in extracting moving performances from the cast, especially the child actors. Asa Butterfield’s blue eyes and blank expressions work well for the loner that Hugo Cabret is. And his dialog delivery is something else. The adorable Chloe Grace Moretz has that middle name for a reason. The string of regulars at the station are reliably more affecting than the main roles of Ben Kingsley and Helen McCrory. It’s a set of actors carefully chosen, familiar faces but no one insanely famous, that goes with the film’s countenance – Emily Mortimer, Sacha Baron Cohen, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Christopher Lee et al.
Hugo is one of Martin Scorsese’s finest in recent times. It’s a film that’s probably a more subtle ode to cinema than The Artist ever could be. It gives you a peek into an era that you probably never knew existed. It delves into the intricacies of film making, the things that the blissfully ignorant would name “camera tricks” and other ways of the trade. Rightly so, Hugo is made for the big screen and not watching it on one(thanks to some utterly foolish people in India) will remain as one of my biggest regrets in life.