It is no spoiler to say that Hugo is a film about a young boy orphan who is a mechanical genius. He eeks out an existence behind the scenes of the central station in Paris, maintaining the clocks. He maintains the clocks against the fear that his alcoholic and abusive uncle will return, and he repairs a complex writing-automaton against the hope that his dead father has implanted a message in it. That is the content of the first reel, the rest I’m afraid, are spoilers.
The basic scenario reminded me of a Dickensian dystopia, but I think that C’s impression of a Fairy Tale is closer to the mark. However, it is actually a totally unrelated bit of commentary which offers an explanation of the structural arrangement of the film. I will expand on this after discussing a sequence of three scenes.
Scene 1 – Hugo stealthily approaches a sleeping gentleman, with the apparent aim of stealing something from him. The thief is caught, and forced to turn out his pockets. One of those pockets contains the notebook with illustrations of the mechanical automaton whose repair appears central to the plot at this point. It is confiscated with the threat of destruction behind it.
We are here in the world of Dickens, where theft is a necessity forced upon a basically good character by the unfairness of the world. The confiscation of the notebook is a display of Might-makes-right, power being exercised freely. Our sympathies are entirely with the young hero, we have no reason to be sympathetic to the powerful old man and his unreasonably prying demands. We feel a palpable sense of injustice.
Scene 2 – At the utterance of the word “thief”, the Railway Detective’s dog pricks its ears, and chases our Hero. The scene is scored ambiguously – the music offers only a sense of kinetic energy, nothing deeper. The detective’s pursuit is physically comical, faithfully repeating most of the comic-chase motifs you’d expect, up to and including a destroyed cake.
Are we in the world of farce comedy? Even without musical cues, the outrageously staged chase scene is so easily read that way, and nothing really militates against that reading except its context of the sad, lonely and unjust scene from which it follows. He’s virtually the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang without the irony. Bereft of solid cues, I wasn’t able to really form much of a reaction to the scene, simply waiting it out.
Scene 3 – Hugo follows the old man home, where he attracts the attention of his ward. She meets him on the street and he basically just demands she save his notebook, and she promises to do so.
Here the tone is very strange. He is the quiet and repressed type, unable to articulate the emotions inside him. She acts straight out of an Edin Blyton adventure story, about secrets and adventures. And for no particular reason agrees to help him. We have strayed away from realism, into comedy, and thence into the motiveless camaraderie of an adventure story, where the apparent structural/functional relationships between characters predicate an interaction which has no obvious support from the scene itself.
To an extent, the specific details of the scene are later justified by explanations inside the fiction, welding these incongruities into something like a single piece. The Old Man is bitter because he made the automaton. The detective is clumsy because of injuries from the war. The girl is drawn in because she has brainwashed herself with adventure fiction. However, without substantial clues and cues in the mise-en-scene and other non-diagetic elements, the emotional experience as it unfolds is schizophrenic.
Which leads me to the thought that in this film, the scene outranks the plot. A scene is designed and implemented not in service to the plot, but a plot is sewn together of scenes crafted to be great in and of themselves. This is the formulation that Chandler offered as underpinning the Black Mask school of fiction writing, and which is also a fairly good schema for explaining the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino.
Taken as a whole, the film just about does work as a fairy tale. The elements are all there, and the meta-narrative logic which drives the design of the film is clearly inspired by that mode of storytelling and that conception of the point of storytelling. It is essentially a kind of Magic Realism; but I think in that mode, it fails spectacularly to do what I think Magic Realism does, which is to use a fairy-story structure to explode and critique a basically realistic structure in a way that conventional cause-and-effect realism struggles to do. Perhaps that should be the subject of a longer post.
Hugo doesn’t work for me in different ways depending on how I try to engage with it. The tragic orphan story is ruined by the saccharine ending. The fairy story fails to critique the realist story. The buddy comedy is underdeveloped. The farce comedy lacks conviction. The coming-of-age story lacks a real growth or change in the protagonist. I can only really conclude that it fails to live up to my ambitions for it; it is a messy bit of storytelling.
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