Cinephiles are rarely disappointed by Paris. But fans of Martin Scorsese’s Golden Globe-nominated Hugo would doubtlessly be let down by the appearance of the real Gare Montparnasse, the train station where a major part of the film’s action takes place.
Though in the 1930’s it probably did resemble what you see in the movie, today it’s been modernized into a drab, concrete shell. When watching Hugo, Paris residents were also surprised by the station’s location, shown in several zoomed-out images of the city: While the Gare Montparnasse is nestled deep in the Left Bank, in the southwest part of the city, the film shows it as being on the Right Bank, very near the Seine.
According to an interview with Martin Scorsese featured in the winter 2011 issue of Trois Coleurs magazine, the director chose to model the station after a composite of other, more aesthetically appealing ones: the Gare du Nord for its façade and the Gare de Lyon for its geographic location and clock tower, an important plot element in Hugo.
Like Paris’ other major train stations (there are six still operating today), the Gare de Lyon’s floor is concrete, its dirty walls painted a dull, unremarkable shade. But there are hints, here and there, of how the station looked when it was first constructed in 1900. The long, high ironwork ceiling, for example, which is a feature in Paris’ other train stations as well, reveals an unmistakably industrial age aesthetic and might call to mind paintings like La Gare Saint-Lazare by Claude Monet.
But that’s not the only trace of the station’s bygone beauty. Like the rooms where Hugo hides in the Gare Montparnasse, the Gare de Lyon also has a secret in its walls. But this one is a lot easier to find. Located just in front of the train tracks, Le Train Bleu restaurant is a splendid sight.
From the outside, Le Train Bleu’s blue neon signage and potted palm trees make the restaurant look somewhat exotic. Behind them, you might see a nice, somewhat chic bar.
But if you climb the staircase to the second floor, you’ll come upon a breathtaking find: a large room covered in gilded decorations and gorgeous oil paintings.
The Exposition Universelle (Universal Exhibition) of 1900 was a glorious time for Paris. The beautiful Pont Alexandre III, the Grand and Petit Palais, and even the first line of the Metro, were all constructed for this seven-month event, which drew over 50 million visitors from around the world. The Gare de Lyon was also built at this time, and its directors decided to welcome travelers in style, with the opulent Train Bleu restaurant, originally called the Buffet de la Gare de Lyon, which opened in 1901.
When you step through the doorway, you’ll probably forget where you came from and marvel at the splendid details of the ornately decorated room. But once you get over your initial surprise, you may notice that the restaurant does refer to the Gare de Lyon; many of the paintings that all those gilded details are framing depict the destinations you can reach by taking a train from the station, like the Alps and the Côte d’Azur.
Declared an historical monument in the 1970’s, Le Train Bleu is like a magical portal to the Paris of the early twentieth century. Even some of the furniture, like this art Nouveau piece, may very well have been in the restaurant since its opening day.
The only thing that might seem out of place is the meal itself, presented in decidedly modern plates, glasses, and bowls.
When you leave the opulent restaurant, the bustling, drab train station provides a jarring contrast. Georges Méliès, one of Hugo’s most important characters, might have felt something similar when he was torn from his world of magic and cinematic special effects and dropped into a stall at the Gare Montparnasse where he sold toys to people who had no idea what he’d done before.
Luckily, as in the film, Méliès’ reputation was revived and some of his work and props salvaged. A short stroll from Le Train Bleu is the Parc de Bercy (Bercy Park), home to the Cinémathèque Française, whose collection of film memorabilia includes several objects that once belonged to Méliès (in the movie, Méliès aficionado René Tabard shows them to Hugo and Isabelle).
The Musée d’Orsay, which was formerly the Gare d’Orsay, provides another glimpse of train stations from a bygone era. In 1986, it was ingeniously adapted into a museum that holds a fantastic collection of 19th century art. Its enormous clocks inspired Scorsese’s version of Hugo’s Gare Montparnasse, and inside, on the second floor, an elegant reception room, created to house events for foreign dignitaries during the 1900 Exposition Universelle, is usually open for visitors to explore.
Even if you can’t come to Paris, you can still experience an extra bit of Hugo’s magic. Some of Méliès’ films are available for free on YouTube and other video sharing sites. These sites also feature footage of the Exposition Universelle of 1900—the event that inspired Le Train Bleu’s construction. Méliès himself shot film of the Exposition; unfortunately, like many of his works, these reels have since been lost. In addition to its usual beauty, the Paris you’ll see in footage from other early fimmakers is full of elaborate temporary constructions, like palaces representing different countries, and fun attractions, like a moving sidewalk. It’s fitting that Méliès captured some of these images; in 1900 the transformed city looked like one of his elaborate, magical movie sets.
The Paris of Hugo may not exactly exist, but it’s there in spirit. Like the answer to an enigma, you just have to do some searching, but you’re sure to find something that will fill you with wonder.
A view of Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1900, from Le Train Bleu. In the foreground is the famous Pont Alexandre III (Alexander III Bridge). In the background are temporary buildings showcasing history and different countries. Today, only the bridge remains.
This article first appeared on HamletHub Westport.
For more about Hugo, check out OSer Sally Allen's wonderful review.