It’s interesting how this year’s Oscar frontrunners were a Paris-set filmmade by an American, and a Hollywood-set filmmade by a Frenchman. Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist eventually won the Academy Award, as well as another, less-publicised battle over Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The Artist is an affectionate, plausible recreation of silent-era Hollywood. Hugo, on the other hand, is set in a city that would be unidentifiable as Paris were it not for a couple of stray baguettes and the Eiffel Tower outside the window. You could argue that authenticity has no place in a fairy tale, but the three-dimensional Hugo is twice removed from reality. 3D visuals make even the familiar look fantastical; here, they replace the organic richness of Dante Ferretti’s production design with something that’s spectacular but devoid of weight.
I believe that critics, guilty of ignoring many fine Scorsese films over the years, are now queuing up to pronounce everything he does a masterpiece. Hugo is a well-made film, one that pushes 3D to be better than it has in the past. I won’t deny that some of the set pieces are brilliantly fluid (though I hate it when the 3D camera ploughs through solid objects – there ought to be a law). There’s nothing wrong with Ben Kingsley’s or Michael Stuhlbarg’s or Helen McCrory’s performances, and nothing to recommend in the others. Some of the writing is inexplicably bad (“It’s Neverland and Oz and Treasure Island all wrapped into one,” says Chloe Moretz’s over-eager Isabelle); it’s been a while since a Scorsese film had a truly great script.
Those who accused Spielberg’s War Horse of having stock characters (they weren’t wrong) should have applied the same yardstick to Hugo. You have the wide-eyed youngster, the Shirley Temple friend, the drunk uncle, the moustachioed villain, the crusty old toy-maker who happens to be a film pioneer (maybe that last one is okay). In the beginning, it seems a very strange choice of material for Scorsese. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clear why the director was attracted to Brian Selnick's source novel. In The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the titular character “discovers” a washed-up Georges Méliès running a shop in a train station. Méliès was a film icon on the level of Lumiere and Griffith. Yet, when he gave up directing, many of his films were destroyed and he was forgotten by the public. Scorsese uses Hugo to champion, via the romantic figure of Méliès, who really was re-discovered in 1929, a key cause of his – film preservation. Hugo becomes a cautionary tale about forgetting one’s heritage, a cinephile’s Pocohontas.
My problem isn’t just with the film itself, but also the technology it so wholeheartedly embraces. For something that adds an extra dimension to the viewing experience, 3D is nevertheless incapable of (or under-ultilised in) producing the depth-of-field effect that enables you to take the whole scene in in one go. Actors tend to tower over you in 3D close-ups, and the background becomes an irrelevant blur for those few seconds. If it isn’t used carefully, 3D could be the death of the democratic image, the legacy of filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Orson Welles. Cinema has always stood for two things – a spectacle, and a mirror held unto our lives. 3D is well-suited to the former, but the latter still eludes it.