Originally premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2009, but only now being released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK, Mr. Nobody (2009) – starring Jared Leto, Sarah Polley and Diane Kruger – is a strange, science fiction/relationship drama, with writer-director Jaco Van Dormael delivering the story almost in the manner of a fairytale.
In the near future, when death from old age has been defeated by medical science, the world’s last mortal human being is dying. No one knows anything about this man, and when questioned about his past, the stories he weaves are too contradictory to draw any reasonable conclusions from them. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto, in heavy prosthetic make-up as a 118-year-old), recalls his own life through the lives – and deaths – of three different lovers.
When the young Nemo’s mother (Natasha Little) and father (Rhys Ifans) separate, he is caught between the two, and projects various potential futures that he could live, depending on which parent he chooses. These conflicting narrative strands are interwoven and delivered in non-chronological order, reflecting the fractured way in which Nemo apparently experiences time.
Various tragedies befall Nemo at various contradictory points in his life, and not all of them rely on choice. Some are clearly intended to be seen as moments of fate; on at least two occasions, the camera follows one very small object (a leaf, a drop of rain) on its journey from the sky to Earth, where its arrival will exert a permanent influence on Nemo’s life. The pull between fate and choice, events which are within our control and events which are not, is thematically crucial to the film.
Van Dormael seems to be interested in asking questions of his audience, yet doesn’t always appear interested in providing a thorough assessment of those questions. Mr. Nobody is both enlivened and pinioned by the spirit of inquiry which runs through it, sometimes profiting from it, yet at other points becoming suffocated by a wealth of ideas, as if Van Dormael was attempting the improbable task of making a film adaption of chaos theory.
In its anti-chronological approach to time, Mr. Nobody is reminiscent of both Richard Linklater’s psychedelic animation Waking Life (2001) and Cameron Crowe’s excessively convoluted version of Vanilla Sky (2001), yet Van Dormael’s film possesses an emotional intelligence far beyond the rather trite observations of the later.
Visually, the film is a delight, designed and shot to be as beautiful as its cast. Von Dormael and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne never struggle to conjure a stunning image to accompany the wordy, complicated script. The editors, Susan Shipton and Matyas Veress, find a great many novel ways to take us from scene to scene, or from one strand of Nemo’s life to another. On the technical side, Mr. Nobody is an unreserved triumph. However, it is the story and the ideas which are the beating heart of any film, and whether they were quite as successful is debatable.
Mr. Nobody never quite clicks together as a comprehensive piece, but cannot be faulted for its ambition or its spirit.