Imitation of Life
Genevieve Yue on Hugo

Film history is often conceived according to a developmental model: the earliest films are regarded as the medium’s infancy, the transitional years of the teens and twenties serving as its adolescence, and its maturity only reached in the golden age of the thirties and beyond. The death of cinema has been heralded countless times over the past several decades, suggesting that we are well into its ghostly afterlife. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo surveys cinema from this postcinematic station, returning to the profound connection between childhood wonder and early cinema.

Hugo seems the least Scorsese-like of the director’s films. Based on Brian Selznick’s best-selling children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, it is his only children’s movie, and it lacks even the slightest hint of his trademark grit. Yet the poster’s image of a boy dangling from the arm of a clock tower revealed just how much of a Scorsese picture it really was: movie lovers easily recognized the boy’s feat as an homage to the iconic shot from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. While Hugo is certainly suitable for kids, the one child with whom it was made in mind was clearly a youthful version of Scorsese, entranced for the first time with the magic of the movies.

Hugo is Scorsese’s most overt work of cinephilia, at least in terms of fictional filmmaking. (In other ways, of course, Scorsese is incredibly active in preserving film. In 1990 he established the Film Foundation, which supports film restoration, and later founded its international program, The World Cinema Project.) Scenes of characters watching movies have long been staples in his work (most memorably Travis Bickle’s botched date at a porn cinema in Taxi Driver and Max Cady’s maniacal laughter during Problem Child in Cape Fear), and Hugo adds to this with the wide-eyed wonderment of Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and the plucky Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) as they gaze at Lloyd’s daredevil stunt during a screening. But the film goes further than any other in its cinephilic fervor. Like Selznick’s book, a graphic novel with numerous film stills, Hugo is replete with references to early movies, particularly in its second half. In an unexpectedly thrilling sequence where Hugo and Isabelle browse through a film history book, images from Edison’s The Kiss, Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, and Griffith’s Intolerance come to life onscreen, and faces of bygone stars appear as if in an Academy Awards tribute montage. On a broader level, Hugo’s premise, in which a boy discovers, and eventually rescues, the marvelous films of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, offers a quasi-historical account of the first few decades of the medium. This serves as a backdrop to the boy’s coming of age, which is twofold. Hugo comes to know the world and cinema at the same time, each inseparable from the other, and both imbued with wonder, horror, and intricate, mechanistic detail.

The film hews closely to the book, following young Hugo, an orphan who lives behind the walls of a Parisian train station and maintains its 27 clocks in his drunken uncle’s absence. Like Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (it is likely Victor Hugo who served as Hugo’s namesake), he lives in hiding, fearful of getting caught by the station inspector. His only companion is a broken automaton his father was fixing before he died in a fire; Hugo has resumed the task, convinced that the automaton, once mended, will relay a message from his father. One day he is caught stealing parts from the station’s toy repairman, the gruff “Papa Georges” (Ben Kingsley), who takes from Hugo a cherished notebook once belonging to his father, which contains sketches of the automaton. In his efforts to retrieve the notebook and then repair the automaton, Hugo solicits the help of Isabelle, Papa Georges’s goddaughter. Their quest eventually leads them back to Papa Georges, whose identity is eventually revealed as magician-filmmaker Georges Méliès. With the help of professor René Tabard—a fictional character who’s been painstakingly collecting the remains of Méliès’s career and whose name is taken from one of the students in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite—the filmmaker’s reputation and rightful place in film history are restored, and his films are screened before an admiring audience, shown to us in beautiful, full-color, 3D versions (with the faces of some of the original actors digitally altered).

There’s some irony that Scorsese’s first foray into digital, 3D filmmaking is so preoccupied with the past. The director’s twenty-first-century view on cinema is retrospective, even elegiac. (Even the route to Méliès’s apartment winds through a cemetery.) Arguably, such a look back onto cinema is only possible after the medium’s passing: to consider what cinema is, as Hugo asks, requires understanding what it was. While its gliding tracking shots were created in a computer, the film is entirely fascinated with tactile mechanical devices, not just the stuff of cinema, but trains, clocks, and, at the heart of the film, the automaton, out of which the fictional Méliès built his first motion picture camera. The mechanical man is a wind-up curiosity—activated, no less, by a heart-shaped key. From the vantage of young Hugo, trained by his father (Jude Law) to be a clockmaker, the mysteries of such machines can be revealed by understanding what makes them tick. As his father tells him in a flashback, explaining the marvel of automata he’d seen in London, “The secret was always in the clockwork.”


The technologies of the late nineteenth century have provided much fodder for steampunk narratives, a genre of science fiction that entertains the counterfactual dominance of steam technology. These, however, don’t typically get beyond a superficial fascination with the machines themselves. There’s a similar preciousness to Hugo, but the film doesn’t merely marvel at its gadgets. Instead it delves further, dispensing with the steampunk fantasy that such technologies can be controlled. Though we may have been the ones that created them, we cannot account for the complex interactions of life and machinery to which they give rise. The film’s worldview, as Hugo expresses in one scene, is something like a mechanized destiny, where each person is a cog in a giant machine. This perspective, a Fordist fantasy of social determinism, is evident in the film’s first shot, an aerial view of Paris, in which the Arc de Triomphe is envisioned, through a superimposed image of clock gears, as a fulcrum around which traffic pulses. Hugo himself is one of these gears, charged with maintaining the clocks in the train station, even if he must conceal and isolate himself in order to do so. Broken things, like the automaton or Papa Georges, are sad because they can’t “do what [they’re] supposed to do.” Hugo’s mission becomes suddenly clear: to fix such devices (and people) and restore them to their proper, mechanized functions.

No wonder, then, that Hugo later dreams he has become an automaton. In one of the few scenes not taken from Selznick’s book, Hugo hears a strange ticking, and pulls open his nightshirt to expose, in the place of his chest, an open metal frame containing a set of delicate mechanical gears. He wakes with a start, the automaton in his room seemingly watching him with its expressionless, black eyes. The flipside to Hugo’s mechanistic vision of the world is this nightmare: that people become things. Life is no longer aided and accompanied by machines, but wholly replaced by them. A worldview that blurs the distinction between people and machines implies, also, a notion of life void of humanity. The machines to which Hugo tends are no mere objects, but things that can move on their own: the station’s clocks tick along at their own steady rates, and the blue felt wind-up mouse that Hugo fixes for Papa Georges delightfully comes to life in stop-motion animation. Though Hugo’s desire to fix the automaton springs from hope (the belief that it carries a message from his deceased father), his nightmare expresses the fear that machines render the people who operate them ghosts trapped within their mechanical armatures.

Fittingly, early cinema often prompted such anxieties. Hugo trots out the myth of the naïve viewer in its account of the first screening of the Lumières’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, where the audience members allegedly panicked when they saw a train rushing toward them. By contrast, Maxim Gorky offers a more sober view of the same film when he saw it in 1896. Though he experienced the same sense of thrall as those fictionalized spectators, he expresses an ambivalence toward the “mute, grey life” that is otherwise only present in Hugo’s dream. Describing that same Lumière train, he writes: “It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music, and vice.” (The visceral detail of Gorky’s account reminds us that the terrified viewers might have had good reason to be afraid; only months before the first screening at the Grand Café, a train crashed through the front of the Gare du Montparnasse. This horrifying derailment, too terrible to depict as part of waking life, occurs in Hugo’s nightmare as well.) Gorky’s vivid account then turns ashen: “But this, too, is but a train of shadows.”

Cinema’s ability to portray life, and to seem imbued with life itself, amounts to a strange vitalism. As Gorky experiences the film, the people who appear onscreen seem neither fully alive nor dead, but ghostly. “It is not life,” he writes, “but its shadow.” Similarly, the memory of his former life as a filmmaker and automaton-maker haunts Méliès in Hugo. Flipping through Hugo’s notebook and seeing sketches of the mechanical man startles him and prompts him to mutter the word “ghosts.” And after the children pull out a box of his drawings, letting the pages flutter about the room, Méliès is again stunned to see these images “back from the dead.” For contemporary viewers, too, there is something beautiful and slightly unnerving about seeing a digitally enhanced, 3D-version of Méliès’s iconic A Trip to the Moon. This is not just a plea for the preservation of a film classic, but its wholesale reconstitution in a completely different form: the film as it has never been seen before.

In Hugo, machines not only appear lifelike—they also carry messages. The automaton seems possessed of its own life, or possibly the ghost of Hugo’s father, and it writes a message that leads to everyone finding his or her rightful place in this world. This message, however, is at first indecipherable; the automaton is moreover broken. Only with care and attention can this machine, which Hugo’s father describes in the book as “the most beautiful, complicated machine I’ve ever seen,” speak properly. It recalls another machine described in similar terms as “a remarkable piece of apparatus,” the Harrow of Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” The torture machine writes a message, but there is a delay in comprehending what it says. Understanding, in Kafka’s story, happens only after experience, when the condemned prisoner feels on his own body what is inscribed upon it, the sentence written and executed in the same gesture. For the explorer who comes to observe the Harrow, the writing is illegible; the officer mocks him for not being able to read it. “You’ve seen that it is not easy to decipher the script with your eyes,” he says, “but our man deciphers it with his wounds.”

Hugo also suffers to know what the automaton writes. When he fits Isabelle’s key into its back, the gears begin to turn, slowly at first, then swiftly with a ticking sound. The automaton lifts the pen to a shallow dish of ink, bows its head, and begins to write. The children puzzle over its seemingly random array of scribbles, each one decisive marked. Then the automaton stops. “It’s broken!” Hugo cries and storms off, Isabelle rushing to soothe him. “I thought if I could fix it, I wouldn’t be so alone.” But then the automaton clicks into gear again. The writing continues. When it finishes, it has left behind not a message but a drawing: a sketch of cinema’s famous man in the moon, his eye stuck with a rocket. Finally, and with a decorative flourish like the Harrow’s calligraphy, the automaton signs a name: Georges Méliès. For Hugo and Isabelle, this clue is only the beginning, and it will take longer still to understand how everything fits together.

We should remember how fragile these machines are. The torture device in Kafka’s story has a loose, squeaky cog, and is prone to breaking. For all of the officer’s pride, the machine and the officer who tends it are fast being outmoded, soon to be replaced by newer, more modern equipment. The automaton in Hugo was left to decay in a museum, and, even after Hugo is able to fix it, it is damaged again when it is flung onto the train tracks. Méliès’s films are similarly vulnerable to wear and ruin. Following the bankruptcy of his studio, his films were boiled down to manufacture shoe heels, his sets burned, and the remaining prints were largely lost and forgotten. Their fate mirrored that of their maker. As filmmaking developed into an increasingly complex narrative form, Méliès became, in the words of biographer Paul Hammond, “an anachronism,” and in Hugo, he is presumed dead. Defeated, penniless, and bitter, this semi-fictionalized Méliès scorns the world of cinema and forbids his goddaughter from going to the movies.

Yet what the automaton teaches Hugo, and what is perhaps its deeper message, is that it’s wrong to mistake something as broken that has simply not yet completed its work. This is the magic of Méliès’s “trick” films as well, where appearances are usually deceiving, and anything—a seated lady, a man’s beard, a moon imp—can change in the space of a splice. Such transformations can take place in an instant, but they can also take decades. At the Film Academy gala celebrating his work, Méliès appears onstage to present a number of his films that have been recovered and restored. He begins, then falters, shaking his head. There are tears in his eyes as he thanks Hugo for finding and fixing a “broken machine.” “It was the kindest magic trick that ever I’ve seen,” he says. Méliès’s films suffered from not being appreciated in their own time, and with this coda, Hugo celebrates the work of historians and archivists who rescued and preserved them, along with other treasures of early cinema. In 1931, the year in which the film is set, cinema barely has a sense of its own history (despite the massive Film Academy library, the silent cinema festival Hugo and Isabelle attend, and Tabard’s well-appointed office, some of Hugo’s most fantastical creations), and in our contemporary era, we’re still trying to understand the complexities of this lost medium.

Hugo proposes that cinephilia in its purest form is that of a child. In the film, it is the curiosity of children that leads to the recuperation of Méliès’s reputation as a cine-magician and marvel-maker, and rendering his films in 3D seems designed to evoke the thrills early cinema audiences might have experienced. We’re introduced to Méliès’s studio via flashback through the recollection of a cherubic René Tabard, who has accompanied his carpenter brother to the set. On the muddy streets of Paris, the small boy stands before the luminous glass building, filled with awe at the “enchanted castle.” We watch, with him, the filming of an ethereal underwater scene with mermaids and lobster-men holding spears. Méliès, clad in the armor of an intrepid adventurer, motions for the boy to come over. “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, just look around,” he says with a glint in his eye, undoubtedly addressing us in the audience as well. “This is where they are made.”

Tabard’s book of film history is titled The Invention of Dreams, and among these cinematically derived dreams we can include Hugo’s nightmare as well. In it, his desire for the automaton to come to life goes too far, and mechanical life overtakes his own. Cinema, one of the preeminent machines of the twentieth century, touches our unconscious and waking lives, and in Hugo it even holds families together, from the outings that Hugo and his father used to enjoy at Christmas to, thanks to the automaton, the message that delivers him to his new father, Papa Georges. Scorsese has joked that he made Hugo after his wife requested he make a film their child could watch. He chose Selznick’s story after he and his daughter had read the book together. “Growing with her, at a later age,” he explained in an interview, “brought me back to the initial impulse to make movies, which was the inspiration that a child has.” In its journey back to the beginnings of film, Hugo returns us to a moment many of us will recognize, a scene of trepidation, of fierce and ardent fidelity, of wonder. It’s all that a child, flush with the stirrings of cinephilia, experiences in her first trip to the movies. To apply Hugo’s question, what is the function of a cinephile? Scorsese’s film answers unambiguously: to care for films, to protect and preserve them, and, ultimately, to surrender to them.