Screen Magic


To call a successful film director a movie magician is usually just hyperbolic cliché, but Georges Méliès (1861–1938) was literally a magician of the cinema. This Frenchman with an egg-shaped head and the balding, bearded face of a Mephistopheles (a role he sometimes played in his own productions) abandoned the family trade of boot-making to become a creator of amazing stage spectacles, and his filmmaking simply extended his magic-show acts.

Méliès’s approximately seven hundred short films (of which only about eighty have survived) had plots that were nothing but platforms for his peculiarly homemade special effects. Every one-minute scene in the ten- to twelve-minute stories was accomplished in a single medium shot (as if the camera were a spectator in the third row of a vaudeville house) into which the actors ran to perform seeming miracles. There is a conductor turning multiple versions of his own head into musical notes and flinging them onto a music staff; a coach driven by the devil through the air; space travelers battling the inhabitants of the moon and bursting them like bubbles by flinging them to the ground. These marvels, frenzied yet balletic, weren’t produced by camera innovations or montage. Méliès merely stopped the filming mid-action after ordering his actors to freeze, changed the scenery, fiddled with the props, removed a performer or brought a new one on stage, restarted the camera, and, presto, stars and heads and devils appeared out of nowhere, then evaporated. Nothing could be stagier or more breathtaking. And precisely because cinema went the way of D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein—excitement through camera work and editing—and not the Frenchman’s, the Méliès shorts remain unique though quaint. His method was a dead end, yet the work itself lives.

Martin Scorsese is one of the latter-day heirs of Griffith, Eisenstein, et al., and he advances mainstream techniques with the latest technology. So when he pays tribute to Méliès in Hugo, a film that mixes biography with children’s fantasy, it’s as if a master of perspective like Vermeer were honoring whoever created the Bayeux Tapestry.

Everything in the film that relates to Méliès’s career is rooted in fact. We are introduced to him in the late 1920s, his theater having been lost through financial mismanagement and the changing trends of moviemaking, his oeuvre apparently destroyed, melted down to supply heels for shoes (was Papa Méliès the boot-maker vindictively chuckling in heaven?). The genius sits at his candy stand in a huge train station, marvelously designed by Dante Ferretti and executed by Jamie Lengyel and Stuart Rose. As Méliès, Ben Kingsley seems at first utterly depleted, but the actor, with his fierce eyes and elastic physicality, soon makes us aware that a coiled power abides. Before the story concludes, about one-sixth of Méliès’s output will surface and the magician will find a new audience. Scorsese, almost as famous for his work in film restoration as for his moviemaking, has obviously put his heart into this project.

The fictional part of Hugo (adapted by John Logan from the Newberry Award–winning children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) is the story of an orphan who lives by his wits in the train station. Avoiding the officious guard, he makes himself useful by keeping the station clocks accurate. Scorsese and his cinematographer, Robert Richardson, abetted by 3-D wizards, portray the terminal as a world of wonder, a place of hidden corridors and underground passages and nooks that only Hugo slips into and explores. It’s a place of steam, cogs, gears, and the constant onrush of travelers and commuters. The 3-D visuals make the clocks, pylons, kiosks, and galleries solid and evocative, and we see them with Hugo’s eyes. For him all this machinery exudes the technological romance we find in Jules Verne. So when Hugo meets Méliès, who once employed stage machinery in the service of romance, we know that this is a meeting of kindred spirits, and that the boy is going to be instrumental in reawakening the magician inside Méliès.

The movie is gracious but uneven. Scorsese’s direction of the child actors Asa Butterfield (whose eyes are like emeralds) and Chloë Grace Moretz is serviceable, but he doesn’t get from them the kind of performances that directors like François Truffaut and Robert Benton were able to get from children. The Inspector Clouseau-like slapstick that Sacha Baron Cohen must perform as the guard doesn’t quite come off, though Cohen does well in the later scenes when the guard becomes love-smitten. Some of the longer dialogue scenes drag, and I really wish Scorsese hadn’t stooped to cute reaction shots of Cohen’s befuddled Doberman.

But these are blemishes, not fundamental flaws. Hugo uses the most up-to-date technology to crystallize dreams, and the movie pays tribute to those early dreamers who drafted simpler machinery into the service of art.

Another piece of motion-picture history provides the plot of My Week with Marilyn, a showbiz clash of the titans with Laurence Olivier trying to direct, and costar with, Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl amid nervous breakdowns and deteriorating marriages. This perfect storm of emotions produced a film that was DOA, but it inspired the third assistant director, Colin Clark (son of the art historian Kenneth Clark), to write a sparkling, bitchy memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, and a much later and less believable account asserting that the sex goddess honored the stripling with her intimacy and even wanted to sleep with him. (He nobly refused. Yeah, right.) However much truth they tell, it’s the first memoir that provides what’s good in the new movie, while the use of the second blights the final forty-five minutes.

As scripted by Adrian Hodges and directed by Simon Curtis, My Week gives us a Monroe and an Olivier who are, in very different ways, formidable and occasionally monstrous, yet poignant, the perfect protagonists for a comedy of wit and high style. The roles cry out for virtuosic performances and they get them. Kenneth Branagh is a hoot whenever the Olivier gloss (verging on smarm) gets scratched by Monroe’s method-actor ditherings. Michelle Williams may not have the iconic Monroe looks, but then neither did Marilyn. It was some ineffable inner spark, some genius for imaginative projection (along with careful makeup and lighting), that turned a rather blurred and stocky starlet into a star. Williams captures that spark. The rest of the cast delivers, too. Eddie Redmayne as Colin embodies aristocratic coltishness, which is quite different from middle-class awkwardness, and Judi Dench makes us understand that “theater royalty” is no empty phrase when her Dame Sybil Thorndike puts Olivier in his place for being beastly to his co-star.

That the filmmakers loved their material is clear from the way they’ve wrung nice detail from their research. The way Branagh displays only the backs of his hands whenever Olivier addresses himself to camera or crew accurately reflects the great actor’s strange notion that he had unsightly palms. Dame Sybil’s ability to calm a belligerent, proudly unionized stagehand is tied to the fact that Thorndike was a veteran left-winger who performed the classics free of charge for workers. Throughout the first two-thirds of My Week, celebrity anecdotes and theater lore feed this film’s comic flame.

Until the steady drip of bad pathos puts it out. When, following Clark’s second memoir, the script makes him out to be a confidant, comforter, and near-lover to Marilyn, the film becomes tearful and tenuous. Being a sounding board against which Monroe bounces fragments of confession, yearning, and complaint, Redmayne is forced into a lot of wide-eyed passive listening, and the interest his Colin earned in the earlier scenes evaporates. And even Monroe, despite Michelle Williams’s skill, goes from a fascinating mix of spunk and vulnerability to a boring whiner.

Still, theater and movie buffs will want to take in My Week with Marilyn. I look forward to enjoying the first half again on DVD while fast-forwarding quite ruthlessly through the second.

Published in the 2012-01-13 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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