Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

| January 28, 2013

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)  reviewed by Mary Schuler DeWitt

As a child I was enamored with snow globes, especially around the holidays. I think it was because snow globes hold a tiny world that is man-made and not real.  The world of gender created in the movie Hugo has a similar feel to it.

In the opening sequence, the audience is taken on a journey through the inner workings of a clock located in a Parisian train station, and then shot out of the clock into an aerial view of the city, where the movie takes place.  Hugo is a 3D movie directed by Martin Scorsese based on the book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, a RISD alum. The movie is 127 minutes long, but given the story and the 3D effects,  the audience want to continue on Hugo’s journey even beyond the movie’s end.

Like Selznick, Scorsese recounts the youthful days of an orphan named Hugo in 1930’s France. His goal is to to fix an old automaton, because he thinks it will write a message from his father, who died in a fire in a museum where the automaton was discovered.  Hugo, described as a thief by the locals, survives by stealing food and fixing old clocks in the Paris train station.  After his father passed away he was taken in briefly by his alcoholic uncle, who died soon after. Hugo befriends a girl, Isabelle, and together they get the automaton to work. But it does not write him the message from his father that he expected.  However, he does not give up his goal. This leads him to discover that Isabelle’s godfather, a local toy repair man, has a past history of making movies; he is the infamous film director, George Melies.

The notion of the world as a type of machine, similar to the clocks in the movie, appears also in gender theory. The creation of gendered individuals can be compared to the way in which society generates automatons; this captures the extent to which gender variance is not necessarily a natural thing. Gender variance is expressed throughout this movie by both the male and female characters. Although the main story is more about the history of cinema, gender notions seem to recur throughout.  Two main examples are as follows.

The first is the idea of the young woman, Isabelle, as the mother figure, helping the young man Hugo to realize his potential. Isabelle wears a necklace that resembles a heart shaped key. It is later discovered that is the key that winds Hugo’s automaton and makes it work. While adjusting the train station clock, Hugo speaks of his purpose in life as one of “fixing things.”  In response to this, Isabelle starts to question her own purpose in life.  After this exchange, Hugo takes Isabelle to a window that overlooks the Paris landscape about which he had earlier commented that it looks like a machine.

The second example is the idea that Isabelle’s Godmother, Mama Jeanne, was once the muse of Isabelle’s Godfather, Papa George. As a young woman Mama Jeanne was the star in all of George Melies’s films – a spectacle offered up for the cinematic gaze as well as serving as muse for the fulfilment of the man’s life purpose.

Such gender issues are woven throughout the movie, at the level of both the older and younger generations.  Despite the official title of the movie, and of the original book, the narrative could just as well be thought of as The Invention of Man (and Woman).

I would recommend this enjoyable, magical movie to viewers of all ages.