Scorsese shows a soft side with the children’s fantasy ‘Hugo;’ von Trier mixes opera with sci-fi in the navel-and-star-gazing drama ‘Melancholia’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
It would be nice to blame J.K. Rowling for ruining children’s literature for all time, but in fact Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and others bear some of the responsibility. It has become now all-too-formulaic how (popular, at least) kid fantasy stories play out: An orphaned or neglected moppet (who came from the most loving family imaginable before falling on hard times) discovers a new friend, a nemesis who eventually becomes a friend, and an antagonist while living in a magical, Gothic castle that brings him extraordinary abilities.
Hugo, the film adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, cleaves so closely to this recipe, it would be momentous if even one second of the plot were able to catch you by surprise. It does not.
Hugo (the impossibly saucer-eyed Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a Parisian train station (circa 1930), surreptitiously winding the giant clocks so no one will know his caretaker-uncle has disappeared and send Hugo to an orphanage. He scavenges food and supplies from shops in the station, eventually getting caught by Georges (Ben Kingsley), a curmudgeonly tinkerer and toy salesman. Georges has a secret (in this genre, everyone has a secret that could be easily told, except it wouldn’t leave any mystery; it’s borne of an WASPy sense of emotional repression and a desire to allow the plot to stretch out), so Hugo enlists Georges’ ward Hermione… er, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to help him retrieve the notebook the man took from him.
The notebook, of course, is just another storytelling device (the McGuffin) that ultimately proves irrelevant, as so much of Hugo is. The film’s real goal is to stand as a paean to the silent film era, and especially the work of pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies.
And that’s where Hugo begins to get interesting.
The mushy themes and soft sense of innocent delight are ill-fitted to the director, Martin Scorsese, whose most prominent use of a child prior to this was probably Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute in Taxi Driver. Scorsese doesn’t approach most of the material with that harsh eye of his; he actually seems lost in it, charming himself with the story’s doe-eyed wonder. (The train station is as improbably kooky as the Wonka Candy Factory.)
But Scorsese sustains the film during its more familiar and less compelling periods with a movie fanatic’s appreciation for the art of the silent film. It is a victory of form over substance, as Scorsese recreates the visual cues first explored by the likes of Melies, as well as Chaplin, Keaton,
Harold Lloyd. Indeed, two key scenes mirror one another: One where Hugo takes Isabelle to her first movie (Lloyd’s Safety Last, where the comedian dangles dangerously from a tower while holding on to the hands of a clockface), and one later, where Hugo does the same thing while being chased by a station cop (Sacha Baron Cohen, whose rubbery face was made for silent film).
The structuring, photography and editing are such loving and eerily accurate reproductions of film classics, you’re tempted to hold your hands over your ears and experience Hugo the way Melies’ audiences would have A Trip to the Moon.
Still, a tone of wistful nostalgia permeates Hugo, and eventually dominates it. The fact it was made in (admittedly effective) 3D, however, only highlights its failings: Melies didn’t have such technology to keep audiences in awe. We may have come a long way since 1895 in some particulars, but originality of story is still in short supply.
There’s a difference between the nostalgia of Hugo and Melancholia, the new drama by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Von Trier was one of the founders of the Dogme 95 filmmaking philosophy that touted minimalism over artifice, but his career has been a testament to the theory’s unworkability. Even in the wedding scenes in Melancholia that seem lifted directly from Festen (the first true Dogme feature — significantly, from a different director) reveal how the idea of steering clear of genre pictures is a boondoggle: Dogme 95 has become a shorthand for uncomfortable family get-togethers. (In the U.S., Rachel Getting Married felt like a Dogme film.)
When Von Trier is being minimalistic, he composes scenes steeped in pain and awkward, raw emotions, but his flamboyant side cannot resist peaking through, as it did in his masterpiece, Breaking the Waves. Melancholia begins with an extended sequence of still shots, supersaturated in colors that make David LaChapelle photos look washed out, all set to a long, graceful overture from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This isn’t film, it’s opera — big and bold and crazed with feeling.
Only it takes too much to get going. The confrontations — Charlotte Rampling giving an inappropriate wedding toast, Kirsten Dunst chastising Stellan Skarsgard and having her wedding called off, Charlotte Gainsbourg staring at something off-camera with a perpetual grimace clenched on her face — roll out with slow deliberation. There’s a lot going on here — not the least of which is a huge planet called Melancholia hurtling toward the earth, about to destroy all life on the planet — but it’s all so clinically presented, you don’t get caught up in it.
End of the world scenarios, from Last Night to Deep Impact to Armageddon, always trigger some amount of introspection, but Melancholia could use a little extroversion. It’s as caught up in itself as Hugo is the kid-lit genre, with no escape velocity.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 25, 2011.