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Mr. Nobody

September 20, 2009

Gorgeous, experimental, mind-boggling, disorienting, fiercely complex, incredibly high-concept, and truly original, Jaco Van Dormael’sMr. Nobody” is the most fascinating science fiction film I have ever seen. And it’s beautifully shot to boot.

It’s hard to know where to even begin with describing this beast. And it is a beast of a film. Running at two and a half hours, your brain constantly racking and racing, synapses firing at lightening speed to try to keep up with the plot, which fragments and spins in a thousand directions into just as many plotlines, skipping back and forth in time and universes, it is not an easy watch. It is an absorbing experience though, and will be appreciated as a cult favorite for the devoted thinking science fiction fans.

Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) wakes up one day to find himself the oldest mortal alive in 2092. Humanity has conquered mortality through an endless renewal of cells, and the world now watches in fascination as Mr. Nobody, the last mortal alive, edges towards death. Everyone wants to know the life that he has lived. Nemo, memory fading, spits out contradictory pieces as he is prodded, and no one is sure what happened and what didn’t. Did he fall in love or become a bum? Did he take care of his ailing father or became a successful businessman? Did he die after being rejected by the love of his life or married the first girl he saw at the school dance? Did he drown in a car in the lake or at the bottom of his own swimming pool? Did he drown at all? Or was it a car accident? Wait, how can he be dead and alive at the same time?

These are just a few, I repeat, a few, of the possibilities posed in “Mr. Nobody”. The film is simply sumptuous, a feast for your senses. It references the big bang theory, the nature of time, superstring theory, and memory – the thought that the universes splits whenever you make a decision, and allows countless versions of yourself to exist simultaneously, in parallel universes, living out every possible version of your life. What an idea. What a concept. Haven’t we all thought of this at one time or another, if only for a fleeting second? What it would be like to be able to find out what would have happened when you took the other path. We’ve all been torn at a fork in the road, and free will means that we weight the possibilities as best as we can, with the information available to us at the time, and make a choice. We go on living our lives none the wiser, because time is only linear and proceeds in one direction. That old saying “You can’t turn back time” – imagine if that was not true.

In the end, however, we discover that this is a human story. It all boils down to a little boy and the impossible choice that he faces. It’s a choice that should not be thrusted upon any child, and it was thrusted upon Nemo. Just like that adorable little clownfish who set off on the journey of a lifetime, Nemo set off on his, all of his, actually. The weight of the decision ungluing him at that very moment from the temporal dimension of linear time as we know it, and saw him pursuing all possible lives in parallel. What girl does he end up falling for, what life he ends up living, remains a mystery until the very end. It doesn’t really matter though, because this is a case where the journey actually does matter more.

Even though Nemo supposely only has three main lives in the film, Leto revealed in an interview that he actually plays 12 different versions of one character, and that some we only see in background, one only in one scene. It is an amazing performance. I thought he was great ever since “Requiem for a Dream” and then in “Lord of War.” This role cements him as a solid character actor. His face is somehow suitable for science fiction – it sounds weird, but there is something futuristic about his eyes, you can almost see right through them. He also seems to have a penchant for strange, non-linear characters. I hope he does more of them.

What kind of mind does Jaco van Dormael need to possess in order to come up with a story like this, and then a coherent script to share it with the world, is extraordinary. The fact that despite alternative universes and alternative endings that simply defy the restraints of normal narrative, the plot is surprisingly easy to follow, is another kudo to Van Dormael’s genius. When he came on stage for the Q&A, Ryerson theatre erupted into a spontaneous standing ovation and applause. Van Dormael looked genuinely shocked, and then a look of pure thankfulness spread across his face and he put his right hand over his heart and fell to his knees. It was a mutual love affair.


Van Dormael revealed that the idea came to him over 7 years ago, and he wrote the script as it is, with the multiple plotlines intermixed. Throughout the years, he would go back, rewrite certain plotlines, mix them up some more, then move forward and write more, then go back and rewrite, repeat about 10 and 15 times and 7 years in passing and the result is the final script for the film. It made me dizzy just listening to him in that thick Belgian accented English.

Van Dormael has only made two feature films in a 16 year career, but both films have had a profound impact on the world of arthouse cinema. His 1991 feature debut, “Toto le héros”, a surrealistic story about a guy who believes he was switched at birth with another boy, won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival as best first film. His other feature came in 1996 as “Le Huitième jour”, a film about a man with Down’s syndrome, garnered best actor awards at Cannes that year for both Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne. You can tell that he’s the sort of person that is completely dictated by his creativity, probably to a fault. But I am thankful, to know that someone with such vision exists. And I believe it is a privilege to be able to peek into the mind of such a master, even if it’s through a screen.

In an interview for the Gazette while shooting in Montreal, Van Dormael said “It’s about the infinite possibilities facing any person. There are good or bad choices in life. It’s simply that each choice will create another life for you. What’s interesting is to be alive.”

Agreed. This is a film like no other, and one that will be talked about in years to come. There is no right or wrong choice here. The interesting choice, however, would be to watch it.


32 Comments leave one →
  1. Patrick Morton permalink
    September 21, 2009 12:49 PM

    Grace, I found your website and read your review after your post over on Roger Ebert’s page. This looks to be a phenomenal film and your eloquence and enthusiasm for it will assure that I find Mr. Nobody somewhere and see it. Keep up the excellent writing and reviewing, ‘cuz I’m bookmarking your blog.


    • Grace permalink*
      September 21, 2009 4:13 PM

      Welcome Patrick. Thanks for your kind words. I hope you find the film somewhere. Let me know what you think afterwards.

  2. September 21, 2009 4:34 PM

    Like the comment above stumbled upon here via Ebert’s page. Loved the writeup and hoping to watch the film, someway, perhaps, through a festival. Keep writing

  3. Patrick Lloyd permalink
    September 21, 2009 4:55 PM

    Grace, My name is also Patrick and I, too, found this entry on Roger Ebert’s page. After reading your energetic review and watching the trailer, I must admit my boundless excitement for this film. The humanity and delicate romance portrayed in the trailer seem so genuine and passionately crafted, no wonder you are so enthused. Thank you so much for posting this entry; I hope to see more of them because I, too, have bookmarked your blog. ;-)

  4. Melanie permalink
    September 21, 2009 10:26 PM

    “I’m not afraid of dying – I’m afraid I haven’t been alive enough!”

    I have to see this film! It absolutely fascinates me, how one choice (wrong or right, only time can tell) can change your path in life – and you seldom get the chance to correct yourself, chose another direction.

    Sometimes I even wish life didn’t have as much opportunities as it does – imagine a simple life, with three jobs to chose from, and only a few department stores. Having too many choices can be a huge burden, especially if you’re afraid of making the wrong one.

    But anyways – I’m looking forward to reading more! :)

  5. September 22, 2009 12:24 AM

    I, too, found this blog on my website :)

    I haven’t seen “Mr. Nobody,” but I couldn’t stop reading. You can write. You can write wonderfully well. It is a blessing for your readers. You are looking for this or that (travel, a job in film), but these words within you will not be stilled, and whatever else you do, you will be a writer. It will simply happen.

    You mark my words.


    • Grace permalink*
      September 22, 2009 9:58 AM

      You, Sir, are too kind.

  6. Rohit permalink
    September 22, 2009 8:08 AM

    Very nice write up. Really looking forward to watching Mr.Nobody.

  7. September 22, 2009 11:01 AM

    Congratulations on the nod from the big man. And he’s right!

  8. Paul M permalink
    September 22, 2009 9:37 PM

    Hate to disagree, but I hated this film at TIFF … thought it aggressively whimsical (way too many plays of that “Mr. Sandman” song) and pseudo-philosophical and really badly acted (poor Sarah Polley, usually dependable but adrift without a rudder), and I absolutely could not wait for it to end.

    • Grace permalink*
      September 22, 2009 11:25 PM

      To be fair Polley’s character is pretty much adrift without a rudder though…really? You didn’t like her? I thought she was the strongest out of the three female leads.

  9. September 27, 2009 3:02 AM

    2:35 AM CST

    …does sound risky in terms of it’s length, but if he spent that many years on the script, you can bet it’s either a major overworked, pretentious dud, or another great addition to cinemagraphic art. The Belgian/French are masters of cinemagraphic razzle-dazzle, but regrettably short on sustained, coherent storyline.

    I have a 20 minute/20 page rule on both new films and books. If you don’t grab me in 20 minutes/20 pages; sorry, you can’t play in my yard. I’ll throw you a ball over the fence out of pity. Most film reviewers I suspect have the same rule, but of course would never cop to it.

    There’s just too many great reads and great films from the past that I have yet to experience, and I’m not getting any younger.

    Too bad the majority of us “Baby Boomers” were born two or three generations too early to beat the inevitable oncoming genetic bid for immortality.

    Wow. What a life that would be. Get bored or burned out with one choice, then make another.

    That’s the way it will be folks. Oh yeah. It’s com’in. Many of us will still be around…

    …just long enough to say goodbye.


  10. September 29, 2009 2:14 PM

    The interesting choice, however, would be to watch it.

    I look forward to exercising the interesting choice. In any case you have more than made a case for Nanking as an awaited documentation of a less talked Asian tragedy, India’s partition being another where the same beast was on his rampage.

    • Grace permalink*
      September 29, 2009 5:09 PM

      S M Rana! So happy to see you here. I always admired your writing.

  11. dawson54 permalink
    September 30, 2009 1:58 AM

    Very nice review, Grace. Roger Ebert did well to recommend your blog. I am anxious to see “Mr Nobody” after becoming interested in “multiverse theory” some years ago. A couple of interesting suggestions:

    — Hugh Everett’s “many worlds interpretation” of quantum theory. Everett was written off as a dreamer (at best) back in the 1950s when he rewrote some critical element of quantum mechanics that I don’t understand, and came up with the theory that seems close to the one in “Mr Nobody.” Namely, that every decision we make sends off multiple versions of ourselves into other universes with different outcomes. It sounds loopy, but it has been embraced lately by a number of very sane, very smart quantum physicists, including its champion, David Deutsch, an Oxford physicist, member of the Royal Academy, and big name in cosmology. (

    — Everett himself was the focus of a recent Scientific American profile ( AND,

    — Everett was featured in a PBS NOVA segment ( that follows his son, Mark Everett, leader of the rock band The Eels, as Mark tries to recall and sort out his scant memories of his father from the perspective of a man reaching middle age. (The Eels are really good, by the way, but it pays to shop around because each album is very different — some lyrical and folksy, others crashing hard rock.)

    — Mark Everett (the son) wrote a fine book about his search for his father, “Things the Grandchildren Should Know.”

    Sorry to swamp you with all this. It’s not such heavy going as it sounds, and might shed light on “Mr Nobody.” I hope the film finds a big audience and makes it to my neck of the universe (Memphis) soon. And yes, I agree that Jared Leto has a kind of otherworldly appearance. I’m definitely looking forward to this film.

    Thanks again for a great review,

    David in Memphis

    • Grace permalink*
      September 30, 2009 10:58 AM

      The parallel universe idea fascinates me – so I guess I am a little biased on this film. Thanks for the links, will check them out when I get a breather.

  12. September 30, 2009 10:40 AM

    10:00 AM CST

    …Uh, right David, your knowledge is very impressive, but aren’t we (including Roger E.) all being a little silly yapping about a film we haven’t seen, just to make everybody feel good?

    Now we have in the person of “Paul M.” one who has seen the film, and apparently loathed it (though why he sat for the whole 2 1/2 hours of it remains a mystery; unless, of course we take his “absolutely” down to the most banal and uncouth level. Perhaps, in another world, he did have the good sense to walk out on something he didn’t like)…and, of course Grace, whose cup runneth over with enthusiasm about the film…though, enthusiasm notwithstanding, I cannot square an overlooked contradiction in her own narrative, saying, on one hand, that with “synapses firing at lightening speed to try to keep up with the plot, which fragments and spins in a thousand directions into just as many plotlines, skipping back and forth in time and universes, it is not an easy watch”…and on the other hand saying “the plot is surprisingly easy to follow”…say what ??…say again ??

    …Well, gee whizz folks, in place of celebrating each other’s writing prowess and brilliant quantum insights, why don’t we wait to see the show?…

    What ?…do you all know each other? Why do I get the sense there’s a lot of glad-handing buzzing around…before the curtains rise?


    • Grace permalink*
      September 30, 2009 10:55 AM

      haha J.B….I do enjoy a different point of view :)

      Some commenters drifted over from Roger’s blog, so there is a sort of camaraderie there.

      As for me…what can I say, it wasn’t an easy watch, but I guess my synapses kept up :) (the large espresso helped)

      I’m hoping all this writing means you’ll give the film at least 20 minutes. Check back in when you are done.

      • September 30, 2009 11:23 AM

        …got yer back Grace…where’s the fun if we can’t be contradictory…you are a good writer, the most important treasure to hang on to…don’t let the mean ole “J.B.’s” of the world get you down.

        For you I’ll give it at least 30 minutes; after all it is 2 1/2 hours long !


  13. September 30, 2009 12:50 PM

    Upon reading this review, I realized that I had read it before, by following a link from Roger Ebert’s website (though in a parallel universe, I guess I wouldn’t have). Anyway, Mr. Nobody looks like the kind of film that must be watched again and again (or, at least, watched in a state of active awareness at what is going on), though if you were able to keep up with what seems to be a difficult plot to follow, kudos to the director, as you state above. I remember listening to a version of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” and thinking, “How the hell does this conductor know where the melodic line is, mixed up in all these notes?” And yet he did. The beauty of it was, I could hear the complexity, but I wasn’t confused by it, just in awe. It sounds like a similar experience I will have if and when I track down this movie.

    Thanks for posting!

  14. October 2, 2009 9:38 AM

    Grace, I also found you through Roger Ebert’s blog, and am so happy to find another Torontonian who writes about film, and who writes so well. I saw Mr. Nobody at TIFF as well and was a bit underwhelmed, actually. I still haven’t written my review, and am not sure if I will, but my initial reaction was that he had explored the same territory in Toto le heros back in 1991 and that Mr. Nobody felt overdone.

    I suggest you try to track down Toto le heros (not even sure if it’s available on a Region 1 DVD but I have a Region 2 disc if your player can play them) and let us know what you think.

    In any case, so glad to find another local film writer! Keep up the great work, and congratulations on being recognized by Mr. Ebert!

    • Grace permalink*
      October 2, 2009 11:18 PM

      Sames…nice to hear from another Torontonian! I may take you up on that offer – can’t find it at my local non-blockbuster rental store…will check the UofT lib and pray.

  15. January 13, 2010 2:25 PM

    Commenting (yet again) some three and a half months later after having seen the movie…
    If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Jaco Van Dormael of, it’s lacking ambition. Mr. Nobody is a sprawling project, as befits its crazy premise. I’m not as enthusiastic about the final result as you are, though. While the visuals clearly are amazing, and Jared Leto does a very convincing job, the movie seemed to fall short in the end.
    Partly because Van Dormael seems at times to treat his premise like a gimmick (see the repetition of the Mr. Sandman song, or the over-emphasis on weather and moving objects to mark the transition from one Nemo to the next). Partly because the ending disappointingly fell into the “it was all a dream… or was it?” trap and didn’t actually resolve anything–if everything is indeed happening in little Nemo’s (pun entirely intended) head, then everything that happens starting with Nemo’s final death doesn’t make sense; but if everything actually does happen, as the last images and the “Big Crunch” would have us believe, then we’re left with no explanation as to what did happen to Nemo (apart from the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory, which would have been good enough for me had we not been given another explanation just minutes earlier).

    Perhaps ironically for a movie that’s already two and a half hours long, it also felt at times like there were so many additional threads that Van Dormael wanted to follow but never did. “Sometimes I can see the future,” 15-year-old Nemo says, but it’s never brought up again. The whole meta-fictional thing, with Nemo as a writer or as the audience, and the use of what resembles a movie script towards the end, never really got anywhere. Finally, the female characters felt underdeveloped, and apart perhaps from Anna (by the way, why is she so important to old Nemo if, as he says, “every path is the right one?”) could be summed up with one word (Elise is manic-depressive, Jean he doesn’t actually care about, and that’s pretty much it).

    In spite of those flaws, though, I found Mr. Nobody to be a visually stunning and thought-provoking film. It definitely has its moments, like that scene when Elise, having left Nemo, works as a hairdresser and pines for her lost love Stefano. A man walks in, gets his hair cut, and after he leaves, she goes back to staring dreamily at an old picture of Stefano, not realizing that the man who just walks out is the one in the picture. That scene captured perfectly the themes of chance and time that ran throughout the movie. I found other, more straightforward scenes saying the same thing not to have the same strength.
    As I said, the premise is fascinating. It’s the execution I found a little lackluster.

    Grace: You’re right that “Mr. Nobody” is not perfect. Many of the plotlines are not fully developed. It’s more of a jigsaw puzzle of pieces of plots rather than a clearly threaded braid of individual plotlines.

    However, given the subject the film aimed to tackle, I feel that such a jigsaw puzzle is more appropriate than a clear braid. The theme is the possibilities of life, and how ironic would it be if we can actuallly realistically portray that in a clear and comprehensive fashion? There are three main possible lives for Nemo, but I think as mentioned in an interview Leto said that his character actually leads more than that, and the rest we see in pieces and are not fully developed for obvious reasons of time and money restraints. And also the restraints of our mind…each scene in the movie is a door, and can open to an entire new life of possibilities, but it’s simply not possible to pursue them all…at least not in the medium that we’re talking about now.

    I have to admit, I don’t fully understand the ending, though it sent shivers up my spine. There is a couple ways to look at it: whether it is actually real or just a fictional imagination of Nemo’s mind; If it’s real, does that mean the universe is shrinking and our entire existence, along with time, will reverse back to nil? If it’s fictional, how much of it is fictional? Is the whole Mr. Nobody story fictional? Did Nemo, somewhere in his mortal life, simply slipped off the edge of insanity in the course of one of the many lives he chose to lead? There are just so many possibilities, you see, and I don’t think any viewer can ever concretedly make sense of it all.

    [SPOLER – this paragraph]As for the female characters, I think Anna is most important to old Nemo because it’s the only one where there was mutual love. With Elise he loved her, but she was too sick to love him. With Jean she loved him, but he never really loved her. With Anna they not only shared that unforgettable teenage crush, they were seperated at its height by fate, and then again later on. The unrequited love is always the greatest.

    Even with an understanding of quantum theory, which I enthusiastically read upon following the film and am still light years behind in grasping, I don’t think the film can be explained logically. And I don’t want it to be. It is an artistic vision that celebrates the possibilities offered by life, and all that we are capable of in our human condition. Timing is everything. We can control everything, and yet nothing. I know I’ll watch the film again and discover new things, and form new connections, and make new sense of Nemo’s lives, and I like that. That’s the beauty of the film, IMO, the execution of the film itself reflects the story it so ambitiously struggles to portray.

  16. June 27, 2010 10:00 AM

    Amazing film, it’s really good. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but i’m seriously considering making this my favourite movie ever. Like you say, despite the complexity it’s not difficult to follow and all the concepts about time and space give it a philisophical dimension that makes you think.

    • Grace permalink*
      June 27, 2010 2:33 PM

      Where did you see it? It’s still not out in North America…

      • June 28, 2010 2:14 AM

        It’s a shame it’s not out there yet! I’m from the Netherlands and saw it in Rotterdam.

  17. melissa permalink
    July 11, 2010 9:34 AM

    I didnt like the show..
    twas confusing..
    and long..
    but the characters were played well..

  18. Manomayan permalink
    July 30, 2010 3:09 AM

    Great movie though I thought the director should have avoided telling the Mars portion as a novel written by Nemo in one of his lives. Thanks for the excellent review.

  19. Anastacia permalink
    August 6, 2010 7:36 PM

    I loved it!
    I can’t explain what the movie is about. maybe a few keywords like – choices, possiblities, a childs fantasy etc…
    while watching its hard to understand what is going on. & in the end you know what you just saw, but there are still some questions open – at least for me – and that’s what I love!
    it is a movie you will think about for the next few days and that is rare!

    a must-see ! :)

  20. nightlight permalink
    December 3, 2012 10:02 AM

    Hi. Wonderful review, and a nice site. Do you know where I can find a full script of the movie? There are a lot of little, subtle nods in the film to some very erudite concepts in mathematics and physics. For example, Nemo goes to an address at one point in the film (12358), which is the Fibonacci number sequence. Do you know the name of the street? When the name of the street was mentioned, I couldn’t understand it.


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