Gorgeous, experimental, mind-boggling, disorienting, fiercely complex, incredibly high-concept, and truly original, Jaco Van Dormael’s “Mr. 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.