This year’s Oscar nominations gave a flattering nod to French cinema. True, not all the film I include in this category were French in a technical sense, but they nevertheless shared a French theme that caught my attention. Having come to the end of my Oscar French film list, which included The Artist, Midnight in Paris, Tintin, War Horse and Hugo, I’d like to share with you a few interesting, insiders tidbits you might not know about Martin Scorsese’s latest film.
Hugo is the story of a fictional character, a brilliant little boy left homeless after the death of his clock-maker father, who meets the real 19th century French cinematic legend George Méliès. Set in the historic backdrop of early 20th century Gare Montparnasse, the film’s digital effects and cinematography are nothing short of exceptional. The narrative of the film is fictional based on a book by Brian Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
And this is where it gets interesting: Although the film is fictional, a very real story of an incredible man’s life and talent is seamlessly woven into the threads of the film. George Méliès, born and buried in Paris, was indeed a real illusionist and French early film maker. His films were celebrated in France through the early 20th century right up until the First World War and the onslaught of Hollywood studio films. In fact, everything about the life, career, decline and eventual honor of Méliès is accurately depicted in the film. He did create wondrous sets and special effects, hand-painted film strips and pioneered multiple exposure cinema. His most famous film is the one featured in Hugo, A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Here are some more fun facts:
The library where Hugo and Isabelle go to research the career of Papa George is actually the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève located in the 5ème arrondissement in Paris. Open for public use and study, this library is one of Paris’ little known treasures.
The Lumiere Brothers (les Frères Lumière), mentioned in the film during one of the flashbacks of Méliès’ early career, were indeed the creators of film projectors. Unfortunately for them, they underestimated the future of cinema and decided to lead their business away from film toward the then increasingly popular trend of color photography. The brothers did work with Méliès on a number of films.
Méliès is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery along with other artist legends including Oscar Wilde, Honoré de Balzac, Jim Morrison, Maria Callas, Frédéric Chopin, Molière, Édith Piaf, and Gertrude Stein, among many others.
In Paris, monuments to Méliès are plentiful: cinemas in Pau, Saint-Etienne and Montreuil are all named after the film maker; the city of Montreuil, where Méliès built the theatre we see in the film, hosts a cinematic festival in honor of Méliès; and the city of Orly erected a statue in remembrance of Méliès.
Méliès did eventually win the Legion of Honor in France, although it was not thanks to an adorable little boy named Hugo.