Mr Nobody

Jaco Van Dormael
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Belgium / Germany / Canada / France / UK / Luxembourg / USA
Jaco Van Dormael
Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger
Screening Date:
  • 29 Mar 2022
  • Categories:
    Drama, Fantasy, Romance

    9-year-old Nemo is faced with an impossible choice: to stay in England with his father or join his mother in the US. This intriguing film follows the different lives he would have led had he made different choices.

    Film Notes

    There’s a bit of a passionate Internet fan community that’s grown up around the film “Mr. Nobody.” That’s is a bit odd when you consider that the mind-bending and eye-popping sci-fi-flavored fantasy doesn’t open until this weekend.

    Yes, I know: The movie, the English-language debut of Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael (“Toto the Hero”) was technically released in 2009. But ever since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival that year, it has never found a U.S. distributor, until now. (The movie is opening simultaneously in theaters and on-demand.) Despite the four-year delay, word of the film has spread among cineastes, thanks to other festival screenings and the film’s availability on imported DVDs.

    Surprise — it’s quite good.

    Jared Leto stars as the 35-year-old incarnation of the title character, Nemo Nobody (“nemo” means “nobody” in Latin), whom we also meet at various other life stages: age 9, played by Thomas Byrne; age 15, played by Tony Regbo; and on Nemo’s 118th birthday, when he’s portrayed by Leto under a pound of pretty convincing old-age make-up. That ancient version of the hero narrates the story, more or less, to a reporter (Daniel Mays) who is interviewing Nemo because he’s the last mortal human alive in a world where something called telemerization has created a population of quasi-immortals, each of whom has a personal lifeline to his or her own “stem-cell-compatible pig.”

    But that’s really the only major science-fiction element to the film, which is closer to surrealist poetry — albeit inspired by quantum physics — than anything else. To be sure, there’s a whiff of time travel here. Not only does Nemo have the seeming ability to rewind time and correct past mistakes, but he also apparently splits, like an amoeba, into multiple versions of himself. Once he reaches adulthood, at least three different versions of Nemos exist simultaneously, with different houses, different kids and three different wives.

    Anna, played by Diane Kruger, is the one true love of his life. Elise, portrayed by an astonishingly vulnerable Sarah Polley, is his painfully bipolar second choice. The union with Jean (Linh-Dam Pham), though loveless, has brought him the most material success.

    The story — along with Nemo — hops around in chronology and location, with Nemo’s consciousness appearing to inhabit each version of himself at once. If it sounds confusing, it isn’t. It’s more exhilarating, in the manner of a carnival thrill ride.

    Part of the thrill is the visuals. Van Dormael has crafted a saga that, even at two-plus hours, is endlessly, enormously watchable. Recurring images — a stray dead leaf, swimming pools, bathtubs and other bodies of water — create a rich visual rhythm and internal rhyme that make sure you’re never bored. Evocative period music is also used effectively as an emotional trigger, and not just to signal a time period. Almost every frame is a marvel.

    As Nemo — or, rather, as the film’s many Nemos — Leto is quite fine. But along with Polley, the rest of the cast is also strong, with indelible performances by Regbo as Nemo’s adolescent self; Juno Temple as the teenage Anna; and Rhys Ifans and Natasha Little as Nemo’s parents, whose divorce precipitates Nemo’s schizoid psychological fissures.

    Never mind that several characters seem to gain or lose British accents throughout the course of the film. The lack of continuity only enhances the sense of deliciously dizzying disequilibrium.

    What is “Mr. Nobody” about? For one thing, it’s about that universal sense that life has passed you by, and the longing for the nonexistent reset button that will allow you a second chance. It’s also about the nature of time and causality, and the notion that many — perhaps infinite — different paths might coexist at the same time.

    But more than that, it’s about the healing, and very human, power of the imagination. It is an old, old man who spins the twisted yarn of “Mr. Nobody.” “I don’t get it,” the reporter tells Nemo in frustration, after his narrative has, yet again, contradicted itself. “Did Elise die or didn’t she? You can’t have had children and not had them.”

    In Van Dormael’s lyrical fantasia, it isn’t the truth that keeps Nemo alive, but his lies.

    Michael O'Sullivan. The Washington Post, October 31 2013.

    Mr. Nobody — Film Review

    Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael, describes at least three distinct futures for the 9-year-old Nemo. It starts when the boy is forced to make an impossible choice: to stay in England with his Dad (Rhys Ifans) or jump on a train and go to the U.S. with his mother (Natasha Little).

    VENICE, Italy — What is the nature of time? Not the best subject for a popular feature film, one might think, until “Mr. Nobody” came along to prove the contrary. Like a thinking man’s “Benjamin Button,” it addresses very complex concepts, like the infinite number of possibilities that human life presents, in an entertaining way, following the hero Nemo Nobody, age 0 to 118, through the different lives he would have led had he made different choices. This big-budget English-language co-production shows that Europeans can compete in the sci-fi realm where high production values are king. Given the film’s versatile appeal as love story and fantasy, but relatively minor star power (Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger are the top names), its commercial outlook looks strong but not overwhelming.

    Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael, whose concise repertoire includes “The Eighth Day” and “Toto le heros,” describes at least three distinct futures for the 9-year-old Nemo. It starts when the boy is forced to make an impossible choice: to stay in England with his Dad (Rhys Ifans) or jump on a train and go to the U.S. with his mother (Natasha Little). This wrenching moment is rendered full of anguish by young Thomas Byrne, the first of the film’s Nemo incarnations.

    If he stays with his father, he ends up with the blonde Elise (Clare Stone as a teenager, Polley as an adult) and lives through a painful marriage to a wife afflicted with chronic depression. Out of love for her, he travels to Mars to scatter her ashes in a delightfully futuristic scene aboard a space wheel, where the passengers are put into hibernation until they reach their destination.
    Had he leapt on the train to follow his mother, on the other hand, he would have fallen deeply in love with Anna (teen Juno Temple, adult Diane Kruger) in an intensely romantic story. Their underage love ends in tragically losing each other for years, until they find each other again as young adults.

    A third, apparently negative possibility has Nemo choose to become rich instead of happy, and he pairs with Jeanne (Linh-Dan Pham) in a loveless marriage that ends in senseless tragedy.

    A little too often, we are projected into the distant future, where Nemo is about to die of old age at 118. As the last mortal alive in a world that has learned to renew its cells, he’s a curiosity item monitored by a tattooed psychiatrist (Allan Corduner) and interviewed by nervous young journo Daniel Mays. Jared Leto, who plays Nemo as an adult, is rendered unrecognizable by make-up, and indeed he can hardly recognize his own life or remember which of the many roads possible he chose to travel. On some level he seems to have lived all the possibilities; to have died all the deaths and still be alive. An intriguing ending leaves the question open, suggesting that every life is worth living.

    Leto’s wide-open blue eyes guide the viewer through the labyrinth of time and choices. He takes the torch, as it were, from Toby Regbo, who plays his 15-year-old self with shaggy appeal. Kruger offers a remarkably intense portrait of undying love; also memorable is Juno Temple as herself at 15, wisely aware that her feelings for Nemo will last forever. Polley’s role is less romantic than chilling, and her interpretation of the manic-depressive Elise painfully uncompromising.

    Van Dormael’s intriguing script is more than matched in his flamboyant direction of this 2-hour-plus tale, heroically edited by Matyas Veress and Susan Shipton into a fluid, generally understandable narrative. While Nemo wonders why time only goes in one direction, and ponders the possibility of smoke returning into a cigarette, the filmmakers have no trouble turning the hands of time backwards and forwards. But this is never done for cheap thrills; everything comes back to the idea that human life is precious in all its complications, and every choice we make has its consequences.

    Production designer Sylvie Olive was prized at Venice for her extraordinary fantasy sets, color-coordinated in each life through the masterful cinematography of Christophe Beaucarne.

    AP, Hollywood Reporter, SEPTEMBER 25, 2009.




    What you thought about Mr Nobody

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    7 (29%) 8 (33%) 2 (8%) 4 (17%) 3 (13%)
    Total Number of Responses: 24
    Film Score (0-5): 3.50

    Collated Response Comments

    67 members and guests attended this screening of Mr Nobody. We received 24 responses which delivered a film score of 3.5, a 36 % response rate.

    The collated responses are below.

    “Can see how easily this film became a 'cult' classic and then I wondered how long it would take to move to sentimentality. But, at turns, I thought of Jules Verne, Cloud Atlas, then Truman Show; some allusions to 2001, as well as French new wave (Harold and Maude?) Was it trying hard to be unclear? Don't know really, because the permutations of life may not be that unusual, as Nemo chooses, so the narrative goes, to grow up with each of his divorcing parents, with 3 separate romances and some encounters with death. Thanks goodness it wasn't formulaic either. Enigmas within mysteries and I guess all of us watching it will debate its possible different meanings, what this object meant or that scene did. Good job because at times film needs to be daring and risky. Do those different paths lead to a different type of happiness or sadness and loss? Butterfly effect repeats but does seem to develop a different thread for the Nemos and the repeated use of Mr Sandman adds to that sense of sentimentality, dream like quality while human memory and a sense of magical realism also echo. Not wholly sure it needed to be so long though but couldn't take my eyes off it”.

    “Astonishingly good on many levels. Can't understand why it is not better known (well I'd never heard of it anyway!). Storytelling and emotional heft of Spielberg, vision and scale of Kubrick, visual effects and mind-messing of Christopher Nolan (who surely saw this before making Inception). And superb acting throughout”.

    “A lengthy ordeal”. “A mess”. “Too long. Otherwise words fail me”. “I found it very depressing”. “Interesting and very clever but not one for me”.

    “Much better and more enjoyable than I was expecting from the trailer and film notes! Still not sure I fully got it but the different outcomes to different decisions were interesting and thought provoking. Perhaps a little too long and with a few scenes that added to ones confusion and didn't really add to the film, but overall a very different and engaging film. Some very good acting too and thought Jarod Leto was excellent. Thanks”.

    “The epithet 'dreamlike', often lazily applied to films, is utterly appropriate here. Like a dream nothing is entirely as it should be, the light, the colour, the accents, the train, the street is a toy, the beach is a set, and everyone is wearing Argyll pattern tank tops, the narrative reverses, restarts in a different place and on a different path. Paths that then cross. The long end sequence is like a dream at the point of waking as logic dawns and the dreamer realises this can't be happening. For a long and convoluted film with many complex issues to discuss it has remarkable lightness of touch, some stunning set pieces, considerable wit and humour, an amusing soundtrack and is beautifully played, particularly by the unrealistically handsome Leto and Regbo. The immediate parallels that spring to mind are the likes of 'About time' or 'Sliding doors' or perhaps, emotionally at least, 'The eternal sunshine of the spotless mind' but despite the multiple lives lived; this has the feel of single life shattered by deep trauma at a young age. Maybe we're all damaged and we're all lots of people with lots of lives at once. Remarkable on many levels and profoundly thought provoking. Will stay in the mind for some time”.

    “Fascinating and thought-provoking. I found the punchline about all paths being the right one deeply moving and comforting. A smidge over-long but it kept me gripped”.

    “Film was listed as 90 minutes but was in fact 157 minutes of tedium. Had I known it was that long I would not have attended”. (From the first time this was put on the website it was listed with a running time of 141 minutes.).

     “Definitely a movie to watch again! Full of thoughts. I want to be 15 and in love again”.

     “Wonderful cinematography and music choices. Strange plot”.

    “Incredibly inventive and creative but possibly over complicated and it felt like they just didn’t know when to call it a day”.

    “Dull and word unreadable”.


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