In the lead up to Hugo I’ve read a number of articles and reviews posing the question; can Martin Scorsese do a kids film? I never really viewed that particular question as one worth asking, and having now seen Hugo my suspicions have been confirmed. Though perhaps best known by some for his gangster pictures and his thrillers, Scorsese has never been a director to shy away from certain genres. A film aimed at a younger audience is one of the very few types he was yet to tackle in his long career.
Instead the central element to Scorsese’s entire body of work, in my opinion, is the presence of a male, socially-isolated protagonist. One who either lives outside of society or is trapped within one that doesn’t understand him and that he can never fit in with. Across all Scorsese’s genres we can see this character from Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, to Henry Hill in Goodfellas, from Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, to Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence. These characters allow Scorsese to explore his central themes of masculinity and its implicit melancholia.
Hugo Cabret in Hugo is the natural progression of Scorsese’s work, exploring the birth of this melancholia as a boy comes of age. For Hugo it begins with the loss of his father and the resentment of his uncle as an unsatisfactory replacement. All Hugo’s failures of masculinity serve as reminders to him of his grief. His impotence becomes intricately linked with his pathos. His search for a replacement father leads him to idolise George Melies, though he too is another example of Scorsese’s flawed and isolated males, denying his past work as an artist since becoming less successful than he used to be. He also befriends Isabelle, a girl who despite her cheery demeanour has clearly lived a childhood as isolated as his own, and prefers the company of books to other people. Additionally, despite the friends he makes throughout the film he continues to be forever in public and rarely noticed.
Even the film’s happy ending masks the continuation of Hugo’s sense of isolation and loss. His success is in facilitating George’s acceptance of his past and the re-emerging of his films, but Hugo himself stagnates. Though by the end he has discovered the mystery of the automaton and delved into the idealised past of Melies’ films, he does this with the continued aim of reconnecting with his father, an aim that can never be realised. Hugo finds companionship but never accepts a replacement father-figure or moves on from his grief, ensuring his continued melancholia and sense of impotence.
This lack of conclusion for his suffering males is another recurring element in Scorsese’s work. Henry Hill hates suburban life after selling out his friends, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island refuses to accept reality, Newland Archer ultimately refuses to break with social convention despite a life-long opposition. Though overall Hugo is an uplifting film, its protagonist carries a masculine melancholia that makes it Scorsese through and through.