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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


Director: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Martin Scorsese, Johnny Depp, Tim Headington, Graham King
Screenplay: John Logan
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ray Winstone, Emily Mortimer, Christopher Lee, Helen McCrory, Michael Stuhlbarg, Frances de la Tour, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 2011


The fable-like movie, Hugo, is based on the historical-fiction book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.

In 1931, Hugo Cabret, a lonely, melancholic 12-year-old orphan winds, repairs, and maintains daily all the clocks in the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Seemingly abandoned by his uncle Claude, the station's official clock-keeper, the boy lives alone, deep in the station's interior, in a dark, dusty, room that was built for employees.

In order to avoid being put into an orphanage, Hugo hides in the maze of ladders, catwalks, passages and gears of the clockworks. He always stays one step ahead of the orphan-hunting, choleric station inspector Gustav, constantly managing to escape back to his refuge behind the walls and above the ceiling of the station. The boy feeds himself with food snatched from station shops and sometimes sneaks into a movie theater.

In flashbacks we learn that, years after Hugo's mother's death, his beloved father, a clockmaker, died in a museum fire. The boy was taken away by his alcoholic uncle Claude, who had been responsible for maintaining the clocks in the railway station. This uncle had taught him to take care of the clocks, and then disappeared. Later Claude's body was found in the river Seine. He had drunk himself to death.

Amid the clocks, gears, pulleys, and jars, Hugo putters, sleeps, and dreams of fixing a delicate broken automaton that his father had given him after finding it in a museum. The mechanical man is all that remains of a happy past. This masterwork of shining steel and brass sits frozen, with a pen in the right hand, ready to draw and write. Hugo thinks that there is magic hidden in there somewhere. His father had left behind a notebook with blueprints and details of the construction for the mechanical figure. Convinced that it contains a message from his dad, the boy goes to desperate lengths to fix the machine by scrounging for spare parts all over the train station.

The young protagonist tries to make these repairs mostly with mechanical parts salvaged from the toys he had stolen from a toy store in the station. All that he needs now to bring the windup figure to life is the key that opens its heart-shaped lock. One day, Georges Méliès, the toy-store owner, a grumpy old man, catches Hugo trying to steel a wind-up mouse and takes away the boy's blueprints for the robot. The storeowner looks at the notebook as if he has seen a ghost.

In his despair, Hugo shares his secret with a precocious girl close to his age named Isabelle. This orphaned goddaughter of the toyshop owner lives with Méliès and his wife. After Hugo invites her to his secret world and to a movie, which her godfather has never let her see, Isabelle introduces her new friend to the books in a bookstore and a library she explores.

Isabelle turns out to have the key to the automaton. When they use this key to activate the robot, it produces a drawing of a poster of a film Hugo remembers his father telling him about. Was this his father's message that he was searching for? They discover that this film, A trip to the Moon, was created by Georges Méliès. The two children also find out that the automaton was a beloved creation of this cinema legend, when he originally had performed as a magician.

Inspired by these discoveries, Hugo and Isabelle continue their search and find a film specialist and admirer of Méliès and his work, Rene Tabard. He tells them in detail about the master's former accomplishments.

This way the movie informs us about the true story of the turn-of-the-century French pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès. He began making fiction movies after seeing one of the first public film projections in Paris in 1895 by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. They created machines, which projected larger-than-life images of nonfiction films on screens that people watched as an audience. Until then, early moving pictures had only been commercially exhibited on peephole machines that enabled viewers to watch brief films, one person at a time.

But around the time of World War I, the cinematic visionary work fell out of fashion and into obscurity in Europe. Méliès was driven out of business, went broke, and disappeared from public life. The army confiscated the original prints of his films to melt them down and retrieve their celluloid and silver content.

When the children's investigation confronts this moving-picture pioneer with his tragic past, he falls into a deep depression. The old man only recovers after Hugo and Isabelle manage to introduce Rene Tabard to him. Méliès' admirer finds a copy of A Trip to the Moon and screens it publicly. This performance introduces the movie legend and his work to a new generation of cinema aficionados, who come to appreciate his work.

Thankful and happy for being recognized and honored, Méliès invites Hugo to join his family. His father's gift of the automaton in combination with his diligence, determination, and inquisitive mind enable the boy to bring happiness to another person and to find warmth in a loving family.  

Cinema Alchemy

My 14-year old client Kira had been originally referred to me by her psychiatrist for treatment of dysthymia. Initially, she responded well to a combination of anti-depressants, cognitive, and family therapy. But her grades had declined lately, although she was a bright and curious teenager. "School is boring", my client told me, "I have a hard time focusing. Besides, my friends always text me when I try to focus on my homework".

Kira considered herself a movie buff. But when I encouraged her to watch Hugo , she looked hesitant. "Isn't that some kind of children's movie?" she asked. Therefore I let her know that many people of all ages enjoy this film, especially in 3D. I also believed that Kira would be interested in the film history that this movie teaches. When she heard this, she told me that she would give it a try.

After my client had seen the film, she told me that she was surprised that "this movie rocks with all the cool special effects". I asked her what inner strength makes Hugo successful when he finds ways to fix the automaton even though he has to face so many obstacles. She told me "he really doesn't give up. He is into getting his robot going and is very persistent until he succeeds. Fixing it is his thing."

Subsequently I asked my client whether she remembered a project that she had pursued with similar determination and persistence - something that was her thing. Kira thought for a little while before she told me in detail and with excitement about several former school projects that she successfully completed because she loved to dig her teeth into the tasks that were involved. "I was like Hugo", she said. This response made me inquire into the difference between the former projects and the boredom she had felt in school lately. Kira thought that some of her friends didn't think hat any of the school projects were cool. Together we figured out that, deep inside, she was more like Hugo than some of her friends.  

Remembering her passion and enjoyment that activated her persistence changed Kira's outlook on some of her schoolwork. She wanted to experience again what Hugo seemed to feel too. Soon after our dialog she was able to choose among different project in school. Instead of taking on her previous "I don't care" attitude, she chose one that she expected to be exciting once she got into it. I observed that Kira was able to use Hugo's modeling to reconnect with her own strengths during this project. She was able to stay focused on her goal. This gave her the confidence that she needed for other schoolwork and her grades improved again.     

Theoretical Contemplations

The medium of film, more than any other art form, is able to portray the subtleties of the human mind -- thoughts, emotions, instincts, and motives -- and their impact on behavior. This makes them a natural vehicle for examining character strengths and how they are developed and maintained. This approach is called Positive Cinema Therapy. It is especially useful in work with teenagers because they are usually responsive to the positive modeling of a character they can identify with.

In Positive Cinema Therapy, specific films are prescribed in which film characters model virtues and strengths. When clients watch a film with cinematic elevation, they are likely to be influenced by the values, belief, and behaviors being depicted in a movie. This makes future healthy action more likely for the viewers. At the very least, they leave the film with new ideas about healthy behavior.

Guidelines and Questions for Work with Clients

•  How did you feel when you observed Hugo's persistence and determination?

•  Do you remember a time in your life when you felt like Hugo?

•  Would you like to experience this again?

•  How and where in your life would you like to experience it?

•  Imagine yourself as Hugo as you approach your projects with persistence and determination.

•  What positive thoughts and feelings are you experiencing when you imagine this?

•  How would this new approach affect your accomplishments and your overall happiness in life?


Birgit Wolz wrote and co- wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy