'Hugo': Martin Scorsese's Love Letter to Early Cinema

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in
Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in "Hugo"/Photo: Paramount Pictures

It may seem strange for Martin Scorsese, a director mostly known for narratives of masculine violence, to turn to a children's book for material. But The Invention of Hugo Cabret -- part historical fiction, part graphic novel, part picture book -- is very much in line with Scorsese’s lifelong passion for cinema and his efforts to preserve and celebrate its history.

Written and illustrated by Brian Selznick (a distant cousin of producer brothers Myron and David O. Selznick -- the latter produced “Duel in the Sun,” coincidentally the first film Scorsese ever saw), "Hugo" is the story of an orphaned boy who secretly lives within the walls of a Paris train station in the 1930s, quietly maintaining its clocks. His interest in automata -- wind-up mechanical devices -- leads him to an elderly toyseller with a hidden past. Together with the toyseller’s goddaughter Isabelle, Hugo attempts to unravel the mystery of the man’s story and its link to a broken clockwork man recovered from a burned building.

But "Hugo" is more than this story; it's also a loving tribute to early cinema, elegantly suggesting, through its beautiful double-page pencil drawings and minimalist, black-framed text, the visual experience of silent films. Author Selznick found inspiration in Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life, Gaby Wood’s fascinating account of robotics throughout the ages, which included a chapter on pioneering French director Georges Méliès. A Parisian stage magician, Méliès began making films in 1896. Translating his knowledge of illusion to cinema, he experimented with in-camera tricks, such as multiple exposures, under-cranking the camera, and stop-substitution. (His creative spirit continues today in the equally inventive work of French director Michel Gondry.) Over the course of eighteen years, he made more than 500 films, including the influential classic “Le Voyage dans la Lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”). However, after declaring bankruptcy in 1913, Méliès languished in obscurity until the French film industry honored him in the 1930s. It’s these difficult years that Selznick reimagines in his book.

Renamed “Hugo,” Scorsese’s film stars newcomer Asa Butterfield as Hugo, Ben Kingsley as Méliès, and Chloë Grace Moretz as Isabelle. Notably, "Hugo" is the director’s first production in 3-D, an appropriate homage to his French predecessor’s cinematic innovation. But beneath the technology lies Scorsese’s own joy in the medium: his reverence for the fantasies of the Archers, the British director-producer duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; his nonprofit work as a film preservationist; his championing of cinema history; and, most of all, the endless childlike wonder for the moving image that he shares with Hugo.