It is not a graphic novel, it isn’t an illustrated book, neither a simple novel. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (relative of David O. Selznick, producer of King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Rebecca and of an infinite list of movies from Hollywood golden age) is a “novel by words and images”. It’s such an uncommon book to need a specific definition.
The novel opens with a series of pencil illustrations, an elegant, mellow and evocative black and white. Then written pages appear and then again the drawings, still at whole page, broken up by the written narrative. And the matter starts to get complicated: since images don’t describe what words express, but enrich the written word, integrating and completing it. And here’s the heart-shaped key of Selznick’s extraordinary invention: the continuous weaving between words and images constantly changes nature because there are things that words, describing them, impoverish and other things that images cannot explain. Selznick handles this mirror game in an exemplary way.
Hugo Cabret, the main character, is a twelve year old child who, orphaned and abandoned by the alcoholic uncle, roams inside the Gare de Montparnasse, sneaking through its hidden passages, in a Paris of the 1930’s. Son of a clockmaker (or, better, a chronographist), the boy has inherited his father’s ability and his uncle’s work, in charge of the maintenance of the numerous clocks scattered around the great train station. Hugo hides because, if discovered, he would be sent to the orphanage. The thing he holds dear, the only memory of his father, is a mysterious and broken robot. If it worked, the robot would be able to write and Hugo is convinced that it hides a message from his father. In order to repair the mechanism, the boy steals mechanical toys from the stand of a grumpy old man. But the man discovers him one day right in the middle of stealing and takes from him the notebook of studies on the robot, with the instructions for repairing it written by his father. This is where the plot starts, with Hugo following the old man everywhere in order to get his notebook back and the adopted daughter of the old man, the resourceful Isabelle, trying to help him in her own way, getting into his secrets.
The developing story is a journey to the origins of cinema and, more than a Bildungs-roman, seems a denouement novel of liberation of personal ghosts who prevent from moving further, forcing the protagonists into an immobility perfectly summarized in the image of the broken robot.
To activate the robot a key is needed, a heart-shaped key, and the metaphor couldn’t be clearer and effective. The theme of cinema is so evident because Hugo, his father and Isabelle are all in love with cinema and most of all because the grumpy old man is none other than George Méliès, the founder of fantasy cinema, the inventor of special effects, the first to recognize the potentiality of cinema as a dreams factory.
“If you have ever asked yourself where your dreams come from when you go to sleep at night, look around you. It’s here that they’re created.” Says a young Méliès to a boy, future cinema historian. The director’s words could stand for the novel itself.
Not only literature and cinema and the awesome Selznick’s drawings: it’s more than that, since we can add another “mirror”, the eye of the camera that filmed the mise-en-scène of this marvellous and surprising mechanism: the 3D camera behind which no less than Martin Scorsese sat to add another chapter to this both meta literary and meta cinematographic story. This chapter is of really high value, awarded with the five “technical” Oscars and over ten nominations, among which those for Best Achievement in Directing and Best Motion Picture (watch the trailer).
But the best award is the one acknowledged by the public, since it’s impossible to remain indifferent to this movie. It’s a wonder for the eyes, starting from the opening sequence, where we see a long pan shot of Paris seen from above and then the shot goes down to the innards of the Montparnasse station and the clock behind which Hugo is hidden. A colourful and rich 3D, thanks to the always flawless and detailed set designs by the Ferretti – Lo Schiavo duo, at their third Oscar, dedicated to Italy, the country where paradoxically their abilities are less used. This movie, made by a refined cinemagoer as Scorsese, from a cinemagoer book by definition, has a beating heart similar to that of the many machines appearing on the screen (clocks, trains, even the leg support of the evil one on duty. It’s full of references to the history of cinema, from the most evident ones to the Lumière brothers and, obviously, to Méliès, to the references addressed to the shrewdest audiences: it’s impossible, with all those moving gears and the clock dial obsessively recurring, not to think of the opening sequence of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
It’s rich in sentiments and its way of painting the characters and their personal relationships, with a nostalgic and dreamy touch perfectly reflecting Selznick’s material. A perfect adaptation realized adopting the most advanced technique in order to stage a new way of narrating. The matter dreams are formed of narrates itself without revealing its own tricks, just as Hugo does in the finale. So, step into the movie theatre, sit down and start to turn over the frames of this splendid book, while in the dark room white snowflakes will start to magically fall, right over your nose.