Backstage Spotlight: The Overlapping Themes of Hugo, The Artist, and Midnight in Paris

Having finally seen Hugo this past weekend, I was once again brought into France via the movies–this time, a Parisian world, namely a train station, built by Martin Scorsese. After seeing it, I noticed that Midnight in ParisHugo, and The Artist all share some overlapping themes that made 2011 film feel very full circle for me. These are the similar ideas/themes I gleaned from watching the three films:

French Influence/Setting

I started to think about how France majorly influenced some of the biggest pictures of 2011. The ArtistMidnight in Paris, and Hugo–all were nominated for Best Picture. The Artist took the big prize (and then some other big ones) without breaking a sweat, Woody Allen was once again MIA to pick up his Best Original Screenplay trophy, and Hugo ran away with five technical awards at the Oscars.

Midnight in Paris is perhaps the most self-explanatory in terms of relating to France. It was filmed in Paris! The City of Lights was highlighted most in Midnight in Paris of the three films. Castor over at Anomalous Material wrote this great article that acts as a travel guide for many of the locations where Midnight in Paris was filmed.

While Hugo was actually filmed in London, Scorsese built a Parisian world that was often viewed through the eyes of Hugo, sitting in a clock tower in a train station. Multiple shots of the Eiffel Tower sitting in the distance appeared throughout the film, although the majority of film took place on a train station set. Scorsese celebrates Georges Melies, the early French filmmaker and most notably the film, A Trip to the Moon. You can learn more about how Hugo celebrates Melies in this Star News article.

The Artist has become one of the great film feats of France to take place in America, having won most of the big awards, Best Picture at the Academy Awards sitting at the top. Other French actors and films have received accolade, but The Artist triumphed in showcasing relatively new director Michel Hazanavicius, French actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, and French film composer Ludovic Bource. Jerry Garrett wrote a well-researched article about the different LA locations where The Artist was filmed and how some related to old Hollywood or were specifically chosen by Hazanavicius for inspired reasons.

Love Letters

It’s fitting that Paris is dubbed the “City of Love”–the theme of each of the three films had the idea of “love” well-integrated into them, each acting as a love letter of sorts: Midnight in Paris, a love letter to the past and to the city; Hugo, a love letter and homage to film; The Artist, a love letter to art and expression, and a well-developed underlining theme of love itself.

Not only was Midnight in Paris a masterpiece and a beauty to view as an audience, but the film elicited charm, bringing the early 1900s Paris to life, and showing the origination of some of the most celebrated artists and writers in the city. The “starving writer” Gil, seeks solace in a discovered early 1920s Parisian world filled with the writers and artist who inspire him. French culture abounds, taking center stage throughout the film.

The brilliant Martin Scorsese decided to share one of his loves with the world–a film about film. There’s a scene when Hugo and Isabelle sit in a library and open a book that talks about early film, silent film, and the first film made–about a train. Scorsese really thanks the past films that served as both mentors and inspiration for Hugo and his other films.

While Hugo hits the love of silent film, The Artist puts its complete focus on it, not only being a silent film itself, but telling the story of a forgotten silent film star in the rise of talkies. In the middle of the film emerges a love story that starts off innocently, transitioning to Peppy extending a saving grace to George, and then ultimately finds the two dancing alongside one another in the end.

Lost, But Not Forgotten

Each of the three films also press the issue of forgetting–Midnight in Paris reminds us to not live in the past, but also not to forget it and how it influences us today; Hugo tells the story of a forgotten filmmaker, and in the process delves into early film and how it got its start; The Artist takes the most personal route of the three, showcasing a silent actor’s life unravel as the world not only forgets silent film, but ultimately forgets him and moves on to “make room for the young.”

Woody Allen really plays a trick on us–the lesson Gil learns in Midnight in Paris is that you need to live in the present, that the past belongs in the past, and that you have to make decisions now and learn to live in the now. The trick is that the film also serves as a reminder of what was, and what past art and culture has done for the future. I viewed Midnight in Paris as Woody Allen’s way of saying, “Paris, art, beauty of the past–the world may have forgotten you, but I haven’t. Thank you for paving the way and opening it up for today’s artists. You continue to inspire me.”

Hugo shows the origination of film and brings to live a forgotten filmmaker and master of the art. It celebrates a life that was all built on a risk one day, turned to a dazzling career, and then seemingly forgotten, being shoved to the side with the coming of war, his films and effects destroyed in an impulsive act of sorrow and rage. Hugo journeyed back to the roots of film to share the beginning of one of the greatest mediums of time.

Yes, forgotten filmmakers and stars have “made room for the young,” and have also been left out to dry. George Valentin is a forgotten silent film star–along with the medium, watching as the world shifts its eyes toward younger stars and ears toward talkies. Valentin grasps onto what stardom and life he has left, trying everything in his power to get the world to divert its gaze just long enough to remember that silent film is still powerful, beautiful, and worthwhile. What do you do when the world forgets you? I think Michel Hazanavicuis answered that with bringing us The Artist in the twenty-first century.

What themes did you notice in the Best Picture nominees? Did you pick up any other common themes that I missed in these films?

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19 thoughts on “Backstage Spotlight: The Overlapping Themes of Hugo, The Artist, and Midnight in Paris

  1. I haven’t seen Midnight in Paris yet but had been thinking a lot about the fact we had two best picture nominees that are basically about early film. I’m sure I read somewhere that there is more of a desire for nostalgia in times of economic depression. So I guess we are all desperate to look back at the glorious past and revel in the beauty, the innocence and all that other stuff of times gone by. I guess War Horse shows life wasn’t so good in the old days after all.

    Really must see Midnight in Paris, great post Kristin!

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    • It’s true – it seems filmmakers are really going back to the roots of film for inspiration and to inspire others too. That’s interesting – I hadn’t thought about it like that before. It makes sense though; in times when money is tight, nostalgia can play an interesting role. Nice thoughts, Pete. Well said. I have yet to see War Horse, but I can imagine that the time in which the film was portrayed wasn’t the happiest, given that it was war.

      Yes, I would definitely recommend it. I hope you enjoy it! Thanks!!

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  2. There was a lot said – in particular about these 3 films – about nostalgia in the movies in 2011. And that’s there, and you touch on that, but you also point out how these movies were mainly about finding that immediacy amidst all the nostalgia. And it’s so comforting to know all 3 could still be love letters without sacrificing that message. Good stuff. Enjoyed this.

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    • Good point with nostalgia, Nick. Pete had mentioned it, too, so I’m glad that other people were able to put into words what I was meaning 🙂 I very much enjoyed all three films, for the reasons listed above, and then different reasons for each too. Glad you liked this post, Nick. You’re always writing stuff that’s forcing me to think about a hidden or deeper meaning, so I figured you’d appreciate a post like this!

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  3. Thanks for the link love Kristin! Excellent look at the common themes in each movies, we certainly had our fair shares of loving and nostalgic odes this past year 😀

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  4. All three of those films were so darned charming, weren’t they? Part of me worries though about where our heads are at these days if we’re spending so much time looking back to the past.

    For me, the common link between those three films was the pure joy I got in experiencing them the first time.

    In the case of both HUGO and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, I didn’t know that they were about what they were about. So in each case, when they showed their true colours, I felt this huge smile growing on my face with the happy surprise.

    As for THE ARTIST, I *knew* what that one was about, but was lucky enough to catch it at a film festival before a lot of the hoopla, and thus able to soak it up without a lot of preconception. It’s a pity that few people will get that anymore, and instead will go into it with the expectation of “OK – Best Picture of 2011: Impress mne”

    Great post Kristin!

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    • Personally, I don’t mind the change. I think about how in 2010 the two films considered contenders were about about a man with a speaking impediment, and Facebook. The year before, the film about war. So perhaps 2011 wanted to break off from the previous couple years and be a nice reminder of the past.

      It’s an interesting point that you bring up about preconceptions. I think that’s the deal now with moviegoers – they expect, and when it’s not what they wanted or hoped for in return, going in with that “impress me” attitude as you noted, they end up disappointed. I actually walked into all three films not knowing what they were about at all; I think that’s why I enjoyed each so much. I went to see The Artist on New Year’s Day, and I had no expectation. In fact, if anything, I thought I might get bored. Turned out to be a huge, pleasant surprise for me.

      As for Midnight in Paris – that was another movie my sister and I decided to see, hearing little to nothing about it before going in. We were both not expecting what we got. And Hugo, the one I saw most recently – I thought it was supposed to be animated. I actually didn’t know what Hugo was supposed to be about (I thought it was going to be about a kid or film), and it ended up going deeper than I expected.

      All three films definitely brought a sense of joy to me as I watched them. I’m glad that was the link for the films for you, Ryan! Being pleasantly surprised seems to be one of the most natural and best feeling reactions after seeing a film.

      Thanks!

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  5. Fantastic article. I loved and responded so strongly to all three pictures and each were in my top five list from last year. I love the French connection (pardon the pun) that each film share. I think it may because wy wife and I are planning our first trip to Paris this June.

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    • Thank you, Keith! Midnight in Paris and The Artist were in my top 5. I hadn’t seen Hugo until a couple days ago, but I think it would make my top 10! Haha, I do too. Wow, that’s awesome! Can’t say I’m not jealous. Hope you guys have a wonderful time when you go. Soak in all the culture and art. I hope you have something to post about it when you get back! 🙂

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  6. Very astute observation Kris, you are so right there are unifying themes in all these 3 films. The love letter to the past is quite charming in all of them, but I didn’t realize the French connection until you pointed out even though it’s perhaps the most obvious, ahah. Lovely post, Kris!

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    • Thanks, Ruth! “Charming” seems to be one of the best and most fitting words to describe all three films. Haha, I’ve always been fascinated with the city of Paris, so I think it really stood out to me. Glad you enjoyed this! I had such a fun time writing this post.

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  7. I’ve not seen Hugo or Midnight in Paris, yet, but I loved reading your thoughts here. Very astute of you. It’s amazing how themes like this come about in films in a year. The cynic in me feels like they were almost planned, though the whimsical side of me tried to hold on to the notion that it’s just the way of the world!

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    • Thanks, Jaina! I appreciate that.

      I know – and I’m so glad you brought up the idea of wondering whether they were planned or not. I must have the same cynical voice in my head telling me that they WERE planned, because I wonder how on earth these things happen at the same time sometimes! (Like why are two Snow White movies coming out within a couple months from each other?) I like thinking that it could be the way of the world too – a lot of people brought up the idea that with a rough economic time, people go back to nostalgia. Thanks for your thoughts, Jaina.

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  8. So true, and it seems especially fitting that Midnight In Paris won screenplay, since it warns us of the very nostalgia that ended up defining the year!

    And while I suspect that all three of the films would have made it in separately in other years, it does begin to make you wonder if there was something in the water in Hollywood when these were being planned. Or perhaps if the common themes helped to keep all three in the limelight in some way.

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    • I agree! Very suiting for Midnight in Paris to win original screenplay, and it’s no surprise that it’s Woody Allen who brought back that nostalgic feeling.

      Good point! They all seem to connect with the Oscars in some sense (nostalgia/filmmaking). Sometimes I think that one filmmaker’s ideas serve as inspiration for others. Michel Hazanavicius had been wanting to make a silent film for years, and wasn’t taken seriously by producers until he gained success with his OSS films. Both Scorsese and Allen have been making films for years–successful, intelligent, popular, well-made films at that. Both of their films were made in Europe, while the French filmmaker filmed The Artist in LA. It’s definitely interesting to think about. I could see Scorsese and Allen inspiring one another and even borrowing ideas from one another, while I see Hazanavicius seeing some American film and gaining his own inspiration from that. Definitely interesting stuff to think about.

      If anything, I could see the common themes elevating the films. Thanks for all your thoughts!

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