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Hugo (U); Surviving Life (15)

Two fantasy worlds offer sentiment and surrealism in turn.

Hugo (U); Surviving Life (15)
Dir: Martin Scorsese; Dir: Jan Švankmejer

Cinema began, according to Martin Scorsese, "with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it". Writing in the catalogue to Tacita Dean's Film, currently on show in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, Scorsese likens the particular intimacy of working with film to "the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved".

You might expect a director who evangelises in this way about his chosen medium to approach new technologies warily. So it is in Hugo, Scorsese's first foray into 3D, that one of the earliest points you notice the effect is when it's used to bring to life a flick-book animation - the bombast of the cutting edge undermined by moving images at their simplest.

In fact, Hugo is a lesson in film history, disguised as a children's movie. Based on a book by Brian Selznick, the film tells the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan who lives in the service tunnels of a railway station in 1930s Paris. By day he fixes the station clocks, a trade he learned from his father, who died in a fire. By night he devotes his energy to restoring a mechanical figure - a fairground showpiece he and his father rescued from a museum. Above all, Hugo and his father loved watching films together, particularly those of the silent-film pioneer Georges Méliès. It is the fantastical films of Méliès - most of them sadly destroyed during the First World War - that provide the backdrop to Hugo. Through an encounter with the owner of the station's toyshop, Hugo's desire to reanimate the mechanical figure becomes a quest to uncover what happened to Méliès, who all but disappeared after the war.

Little of the action takes place beyond the station, which is rendered as a giant playground, full of ticking clock parts, tunnels and grand concourses rendered in Scorsese's favoured swooping crane shots. Perhaps surprisingly, it's populated by a host of idiosyncratic English actors: Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, Christopher Hurt and Ben Kingsley, and Sacha Baron Cohen in an adept comic turn as the sadistic station inspector. Devoted to rounding up stray children and packing them off to the orphanage, accompanied by his dog Maximilian, Baron Cohen is part-Clouseau, part-Child Catcher and steals the show with his sibilant delivery of the line: "It seems Maximilian doesn't like the cut of your jib".

But Hugo is let down by its script, which lapses into Hollywood cliché - made worse by an off-the-peg "Christmas movie" orchestral soundtrack. There is too much breathless talk of having an "adventure" and cinema being a "special place", a place "where dreams are made". Are dreams really made by the movie business, like so many cars rolling off a production line?

It's safe to say, in any case, that none of these family-friendly "dreams" would feature female bodies with the heads of chickens, lots of sinisterly oozing viscous matter or a pornographic teddy bear. That particular niche is filled this week by Surviving Life, described by its director, Jan Švankmejer, as a "psychoanalytical comedy". Švankmejer, the celebrated Czech surrealist animator, has been exploring the darker recesses of the human mind since the 1960s. The plot here is simple enough: boy meets girl, boy's head turns into a giant running tap, boy realises it's all a dream, boy visits a psychoanalyst who tells him that the "girl" is his anima - AKA the female part of his soul. "Getting your own anima pregnant?" the psychoanalyst exclaims in horror, overlooked by portraits of Freud and Jung. "That's worse than incest."

It's tempting to hold up Švankmejer's wild creativity as a riposte to Hollywood's mega-budget fantasies. But money matters: as Švankmejer himself explains to the audience at the beginning of the film, budget constraints forced him to scale down his ambitions for Surviving Life. He'd intended to make a live-action movie, he explains, but instead resorted to animating paper cut-outs. "I've always wanted to make a film in which dream blends with reality, and vice-versa . . . only the fusion of dream and reality can make up a complete human life. Sadly, our civilisation has no time for dreams. There's no money in them."

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral