In the Beginning: Hugo and The Artist

11/23/2011 4:00 AM |

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Opens November 23

The Artist
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Opens November 25

You could call Hugo the most elaborate advertisement for film preservation ever made. Central to Martin Scorsese’s uber-nostalgic adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the reminder that Georges Méliès, magician-filmmaker and pioneer, was nearly forgotten in the tumults of 20th-century history and cinema. In Scorsese’s family film (dutifully released over Thanksgiving), the son of a clock-tinkerer living in a Paris train station is abruptly orphaned, and as he is learning to survive alone, he discovers the rest of the world—including the curmudgeonly storeowner (Ben Kingsley) with a monumental past. Driving home the cinematic bona fides is the film’s status as Scorsese’s inaugural run at 3-D, a format that has labored under the huckster’s pitch of wonder and amazement without necessarily delivering.

But the hyped perspective and the mood of storyteller’s mystery suit the scurryings of Hugo (Asa Butterfield, looking, at times, richly drawn in), as he dodges a station guard (stiffly puppet-like Sacha Baron Cohen), makes a formative bourgeois friend (Chloe Moretz, insufferably delighted), and learns the origins of an automaton fussed over by Dad (A.I. alum Jude Law, briefly). Scorsese at times partakes of comin’-at-ya 3D—make-way forward shots through crowds, a bizarre eye-poking shot of the guard’s mechanical leg, long-lived swirling snowflakes. But he’s a director already peculiarly concerned with the alchemy of the vectors of his shots and his actors’ glances, and how to burn the movement and rhythm of a heightened moment into the brain. His use of 3D—which does not approach that kind of intensity and cannot be his final word on the format—is above all a way of recreating the feel of inhabiting the station (which is more than a matter of dimensions).

Hugo mills about the station a bit too long, the looming melancholy blurring into becoming any given inert evocation of a children’s world (way back when, it was originally optioned with Johnny Depp). The Méliès revelation, which is followed by happy-making on-set memories of trick shots and prancing extras, gives a needed boost. Great joy is taken in gear(s), as in the opening cut from clockworks to Paris streets as suave as 2001’s bone-spaceship, or elegiac lines in praise of machines that have lost their purpose. But the feeling of release that accompanies Méliès’s rediscovery makes the film more than a celebration of movie origin myths and truths. Real trauma lies underneath it all: Hugo loses a father violently and mysteriously, only to encounter the cruelty of ego-bruised storeowner Méliès, who seems resentful of the boy’s skillful tinkering and possible bright future. The flip side to a child’s journey of discovery here is an artist’s consuming fear of oblivion.

“Time hasn’t been kind to old movies,” it’s said in Hugo, and The Artist, a much-applauded sleeper success at the New York Film Festival, has both adoring fans and those leery of its use of the past. The black-and-white silent pastiche (originally shot in color, as is general practice) stirs together a jokey evocation of the silent era, and bits and notions from the 40s and 50s (chiefly Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born). It’s hard to deny that the story—a bounding action star (winning Jean Dujardin) burns out with the coming of sound and the ascension of an actress he falls for (Bérénice Bejo)—is tinged with affectionate condescension, most obviously in the star’s outsized self-regard, which is intended to express the silent medium’s past-due-date obliviousness. But even if you prefer Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, Stanley Donen’s Movie Movie, or Guy Maddin’s high acts, Michel Hazanavicius (of the weirdly outdated OSS spoofs) does shamelessly and appealingly embrace the notion of putting on a show, in an endeavor which (if not as potent or historically conscientious as Hugo’s meta-throughline from 3D to Méliès) aims to please.