In the past week and a bit, I’ve seen two films which both act as loving tributes to early cinema: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist. I enjoyed each one to a large degree, yet there’s something small but significant missing from both.
There’s an obvious difference between the two: The Artist is a silent film (or almost), produced in a manner that makes it look like the movies of the time in which it is set. Hugo, though steeped in visual references to the works of the 1920s and earlier, is in up-to-the-minute digital 3D. And while The Artist appears to take it as read that the audience will be broadly familiar, at least on some level, with the narrative conventions it adopts, Hugo functions in part as Scorsese’s introductory lecture on film history for kids.
Hugo is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, with which I am unfamiliar. It is set in a snow-covered, romanticised Paris between the wars, where orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of the central station; he spends his time winding the clocks, dodging the station inspector who is determined to pack him off to an orphanage, and stealing parts for the automaton he was trying to repair with his late father. This brings him into conflict with the grumpy old man who runs the station toy shop, who turns out to be – spoiler alert! – silent cinema pioneer George Méliès (Ben Kingsley). Bitter after the loss of his films and public following after the First World War, Méliès has kept his work secret from his goddaughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who teams up with Hugo to discover his secret.
Though it’s being promoted as a family adventure, Hugo contains relatively little adventuring beyond the children scampering around the station hiding from adults. Not a problem in itself (though judging from the audience numbers at the multiplex where I saw the film, the distributors have miscalculated in releasing it on the same day as Happy Feet Two), but the film unfortunately comes grinding to a halt once Méliès’ true identity is revealed. This plot twist allows Scorsese to share a potted biography of Méliès, introduce his best known works, and indulge in some regrets about how much early cinema has been lost forever. I found myself wondering whether the handful of children in the audience grasped that the character on screen was based on a real person.
The story ends with lots of people watching a film, which is probably the happiest ending possible in Scorsese’s book. The lack of an actual villain (even the Inspector is treated sympathetically) means the stakes never feel particularly high, and the second half of the film ambles to its conclusion. But despite that, there is plenty to enjoy – the production design creates a delightful version of the Gare Montparnasse criss-crossed with the labyrinth of hidden passages in which Hugo makes his home. Butterfield and Moretz play their parts with plenty of wide-eyed charm, and the supporting cast is full of welcome faces – it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Lee.
It also has what is possibly the best use of 3D I’ve seen to date. In virtually all other modern 3D films – even Avatar – I’ve found myself become accustomed to the effect by the half way mark, only noticing it thereafter if something is very obviously stuck out of the screen at me, whereupon it becomes a distraction from the narrative. This reduces the effect to the level of a gimmick; fine for something like Final Destination 5, but an irritant when it comes to storytelling. In this case, I was conscious of the 3D throughout the film. Though it felt unnecessary in one or two places – a shot of three people talking in a room doesn’t require this kind of technical trimmings – for the most part it satisfyingly added to the world Scorsese and his team were building. He takes every opportunity to place objects in the foreground – lights hanging from the walls, Hugo’s hands as he winds a clock. At one point, Sacha Baron Cohen’s face looms menacingly from the screen. Yet Scorsese saves the best ‘til last, working in some 3D renderings of vintage Méliès films that present these familiar images in a thrilling new way.
The Artist is perhaps less concerned with saluting the pioneers of film than it is with showing audiences a good time, something it does quite successfully. Told largely in the language of silent films, it does have a few jokes that play to the modern audience’s expectations of soundtracks. They are far too much fun to spoil, but I’ll mention the opening sequence, which takes place at the premiere of George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) latest drama. The hero is being questioned by the enemy agents who have captured him: “I will never talk!” he assures them in the intertitle. (The gag is repeated later when his wife tells him, “We have to talk.”) As the screening ends, we see Valentin behind the screen listening for the audience’s reaction. To us it appears non-existent, until a shot of the audience reveals what the character could hear – they are all applauding wildly.
The film is set at the end of the silent era, as film studios start switching to sound (much as they would start enthusiastically converting everything to 3D decades later). Valentin dismisses sound as a gimmick, and refuses to even try it (what seems like a baffling attitude is neatly explained in the final scene). Consequently, his star does not fade so much as implode overnight, while Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), the starlet who adores him and played a small role in his last major feature, becomes a sensation.
While there’s no denying the success of the storytelling, but the actual story of The Artist is pretty weak. Valentin is not a particularly sympathetic, or even interesting, character; Dujardin’s broad playing is reminiscent of his lead role in the 0SS comedies, but The Artist is not a spoof. Peppy, though aptly named, is just as two dimensional. While I greatly enjoyed the film’s ingenuity and homages to a bygone age, I would have liked to have become emotionally invested in the story as well. I wonder what impression modern audiences, those unfamiliar with the breadth and artistry of the best silent films, will make of the form; Valentin’s swansong is, after all, a pretentious melodrama which seems to deserve its box office failure. Hugo, on the other hand, has its young leads sneak into a cinema to watch Harold Lloyd in Safety Last – a film which definitely still works as a crowdpleaser today.
It will be interesting to see whether either film helps spread an interest in early cinema, particularly among young audiences who may not yet have seen a silent film – which do still have showings across the country, albeit sporadically in most cases. I would say Hugo, with its more appealing characters and modern gloss, has the better chance of doing this; The Artist is more likely to find itself preaching to the converted, no matter how many Oscar nominations it ends up with. Either way, it’s good to see cinema’s history being celebrated so warmly by two such enjoyable films.