Film shares with stage magic the conceit that the audience is complicit in agreeing to be fooled. Just as we go along with the conjuror’s misdirection in order to enjoy seeing the impossible, so do we suspend our disbelief as the theatre lights dim and the film begins, allowing the director’s technology to usher us into an imaginary world. That technology, however, has taken a century and a quarter to develop and in a twist of self-reference, two films currently in theatres use it to explore that development. Aptly, the two films use diametrically different approaches. The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, pretends to be a black and white silent film of the late 1920s, complete with a melodramatic, clichéd plot and actors mugging the camera. In Hugo, on the other hand, director Martin Scorsese uses full-colour, three-dimensional film technology to tell the story of even more primitive times in the history of cinema. Ironically, The Artist is a French film pretending to be English-speaking whereas Hugo is an American film featuring a largely English cast posing as French people. Both films are entertaining, but Hugo makes a better point.
First illusion: though The Artist is set (and was filmed) in Hollywood) it is a decidedly European production — the cast and crew are French or Belgian. Not that that matters, of course: there are no speaking parts. The story is familiar. Silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, sporting a smile so dazzling it seems to talk) accidentally gives chorus girl Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) a start in movies. Valentin’s motive is obscure, for he displays little affection for Peppy. In fact, Valentin has just one love — himself; this bloke makes Narcissus look self-effacing. And that is fatal. As Peppy graduates from bit roles to star, Valentin’s character flaw destroys him. Egotistic to the end, he refuses to adapt to the advent of sound, wastes his fortune in producing silent melodrama and descends into a alcoholic despair. His only hope is to be rescued by . . . . Well, go see the movie.
Although The Artist mimics black and white silent film, its quality is definitely Twenty-first Century: the cinematography is rich with deep blacks and dazzling whites and is accompanied by a stereophonic orchestral score. As a result of this contradiction, the audience is forced to acknowledge the technology: we anxiously await the inevitable sound effects. And when they come, they are muted, but surprising. In one scene half way through the film, George drops a cup onto his dressing room table. The resulting minor clunk is explosive. We are set up for more changes to come — in contrast to George who refuses to come to grips with sound.
And that’s it. Hazanavicius has used a clever device to make a small point that has been made before, notably in Sunset Boulevard.
Hugo, on the other hand, is original both in plot and technique. Scorsese’s emphasis here is on time and the mechanics of illusion, so he has chosen a story by Brian Selznick that features clockwork. The setting is a Paris railway station in the 1920s, young Hugo (Asa Butterfield), the orphaned son of a clockmaker, has secretly taken over from his drunken uncle the task of maintaining the clocks that govern station life. And here is where Scorsese makes 3D work. We are led into the interior of the giant clocks: flywheels spin, cogs click the seconds and pendulums swing, all in three dimensions. This alone is worth the ticket price.
The story: Hugo runs up against a maker and repairer of clockwork toys (Ben Kingsley) whose gruff exterior is a mask for an embittered old man. Sadistically, the toymaker accuses Hugo of theft and confiscates the boy’s treasured notebook, one of two precious legacies left to Hugo by his father. The other memento is a strange, broken automaton that his father was attempting to repair when he died. Aided by the toymaker’s grand-daughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), Hugo attempts to repair the automaton, believing that it will deliver a message from his dead father.
So what has this to do with the history of film? Well, when the kids do succeed in fixing the mechanical man (much as a director fixes actors by getting them to say the lines given them), it delivers a cryptic message not from dad, but from film pioneer George Méliès. It is not a spoiler (you can see the fact on the IMDB web site) to reveal that the toymaker is in fact Méliès, a mechanical genius who started out as a stage magician and illusionist but turned to film making in the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Crushed by competition, Méliès has given up film and sunk, like The Artist‘s Valentin, into depression. And it is time for him to be rescued by . . . . Well, go see the movie.
Hugo is an homage, not only to Méliès, but also to the technology — the mechanics if you like — of film making. We are treated to a tour of the magic of film as invented by Méliès, the former conjuror, who invented stop-motion tricks, colouration and the dissolve. But we are reminded that at heart, film is just clockwork.
One more thought. When I saw Hugo, children made up a good part of the audience. Although there are some moments in the film that will appeal to kids — after all the two protagonists are children and there are some fancy chase scenes — the spirit of the film is decidedly adult. I am not sure that really young children would be able to endure the full two hours.