Mr. Nobody

2009 / 141m - Belgium
Romance, Sci-fi
Mr. Nobody poster

Pan-European cinema with a dash of American flavor, a good description of what you can expect from Mr. Nobody. Belgian (!) director Jaco van Dormael launches this unique project which unifies influences from all over the Western world to create a film that pays homage to its predecessors while still standing very well on its own. The result is something definitely worth having on your resume.

screen capture of Mr. Nobody

No doubt Jaco Van Dormael's Mr. Nobody is overreaching. The film is overambitious and unable to handle all of its themes with appropriate care. Its 160-minute running time might sound a little overwhelming but there's so much here that it barely allows van Dormael to scratch the surface of all the things he included. This might be a little problematic if you expect a conclusive story and a tightly wrapped whole, but that would be missing the whole point of the film.

I don't think I've ever seen a film with this many cinematic climaxes before. It's astounding how van Dormael turns each scene into a unique little cinematic event. There is hardly filler here, no scenes to drag out the running time or to fill some gaps between other climaxes. Every scene matters and every scene is made to look like it matters. The director uses all means at his disposal to keep the viewer engaged and interested in the life of the main protagonist, Nemo Nobody.

While advertised as a sci-fi flick it hardly sums up the tone of the film. There are indeed some scenes set in the future and the film does handle some typical sci-fi themes, but at the core of the film lies romance. Three romances to be exact, all of them involving Nemo and all of them happening in alternate universes. This complex setup takes the film into sci-fi territory but at the same time places it in a totally different league from regular sci-fi genre filmmaking.

The story starts with Nemo, the last surviving mortal on earth, nearing his death. His mind is gone, but a little old-fashioned hypnosis trick is bringing it all back. From there on we travel back in time to follow the possible lives of Nemo. The setup reminded me a little of Benjamin Button with a serious injection of Amelie Poulain, only better.

screen capture of Mr. Nobody

On a visual level, Mr. Nobody has a lot of parallels with the work of Jeunet and Caro. Nemo's memories share a similarly warm and nostalgic feel, using bright colors and removing all the possible filth, grain, and darkness from view. The scenes from the future look more modern and slick, introducing some interesting contrasts. What all scenes share though is a common sense of detail, craftsmanship, and vision. The camera handling, art direction, and visual inventiveness are varied and simply stunning to behold. And best of all, van Dormael manages to keep it fresh and alive throughout the whole 160 minutes.

The soundtrack is just as varied as the visuals, though a little less daring. There are some strange musical choices but for some reason, they always seem to work out okay. Not unlike the musical skills of PT Anderson. It's not a soundtrack I'd care to own but within the confines of the film its works very well.

Acting is equally strong. Jared Leto is very powerful as Nemo, extra praise goes out to the young cast who all put in equally strong performances. It's not always easy to get this much from kid actors. And as a side note, it's funny how van Dormael takes the most prominent feature of Jared Leto (his eyes) and turns it into a returning stylistic element. It's actually quite remarkable how this is one of the first things I remember when thinking back on the film.

screen capture of Mr. Nobody

The film starts off a little confusing, but once the trip down memory lane starts things fall into place rather quickly. Mr. Nobody isn't a very complex film but it does require the full attention of the viewer to keep a grip on what is happening. There are some parallel universes to take into account and even though there are enough stylistic details and differences to tell them apart, once you miss those it might become confusing very fast.

The ending feels a little bit rushed and does a less-than-perfect job explaining the central theme of the film, but I believe multiple viewings can fix that. If anything, it's a good reason to watch the film a second or even a third time. With scenes skipping quickly between the universes there is quite a lot of puzzling to be done, still, it's a film where the premise pretty much defies plot holes so that makes it a little easier.

There is plenty to love here. The film has no glaring weak points, it has a strong heart, and it makes the 160 minutes seem like a short introduction to the main story. There is so much going on, both stylistically and story-wise, that it may be a bit much the first time around. Even so, the film leaves you with a feeling of having watched something very special. Maybe van Dormael could've scrapped a few elements to make it into a tighter whole, at the same time I believe it would've killed part of the charm. Definitely recommended!