There are so few films that can be described as beautiful. Plenty of films look beautiful, but a very select few make you feel it, really get under your skin and touch you where you live.
”Mr Nobody” is not only one of those, it’s also one of the movies like ”Primer”, ”Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and ”The Fountain” that you can watch more than once and take notes and still not being able to follow completely.
It also disappeared completely after premiering at Cannes in 2009, finally making it to America in 2013 and making less than four thousand dollars in theatres (on top of a few million in its own territory).
What’s it about? Family, love, children, parents, death, birth… you name it. You can think of it as sci-fi film – and it certainly looks like one at times – but it might just be a drama about a boy’s life.
Nemo Nobody is born, grows up, gets married, has a family and lives out his life to a ripe old age… except that doesn’t even begin to cover it. You’ll never be sure which is the ‘real’ Nemo – the middle aged man, the one aged 118 in a hospital bed surrounded by incredible technology, hover cars whizzing by amid the skyscrapers outside (both played by Leto), the little boy standing on a train station with his father, the teenager falling in love with the daughter of his mother’s lover, or the soul in a soft white ante-world waiting to be born.
The narrative is a jumble of things happening all over place, the story jumping back, forth and sideways in time in Nemo’s life – and what appears to be many other lives being lived by other versions of him. To review the plot is nearly impossible, because it’s so disjointed you’d have to watch it a dozen times and memorise it just to relate it.
When it’s over you realise the pivotal moment came when Nemo’s parents (Rhys Ifans and Natasha Little) separate. His mother is boarding a train to leave, and he’s standing on the platform with his father to say goodbye. During the scene (and in further snippets throughout the film) he stands next to his father as the train pulls away, disbelief on his tiny face, and in other sequences he runs after it, reaching for his mother’s hand and letting her pull him aboard.
You realise it’s the pivotal moment because the overarching theme is actually choice, and where life can end up based on it. Even more potently, it’s about the idea that if you don’t commit yourself to a choice, all things are still possible.
In one stream of the plot, Nemo stays with his father, taking care of the older man as he ages into senility while Nemo grows into a teenager. In another, he moves away with his mother and falls in love with her new beau’s daughter Anna (Juno Temple), falling as hard and completely as only teenagers can, sneaking into each others rooms to keep their relationship secret from their parents.
When his mother and her new boyfriend consequently break up, Anna and Nemo promise to seek each other out, but keep missing each other until they cross paths as adults, Anna now played by Diane Kruger.
But it’s not even that simple. Even within the Anna plot strand there are some scenes where he sees her by chance on a train station with her children in tow, and in others he waits for her every day at the lighthouse where she promised to wait for him until they’re reunited in a tearjerker of a scene.
In another life, Nemo’s married to Elise (Sarah Polley) who he meets at a party as a kid. Badly bipolar and with a blistering performance by Polley, Elise spends her days in bed crying, possibly because of her condition, but possibly because she’ll never love him as much as Stefano – a figure from their teen years – while Nemo patiently tends to her and raises their children.
In yet another life he’s married to Jean (Pham), and each life/timeline/reality is dotted with dreams and visions of the others – sometimes on Nemo’s part, sometimes just from the construction of the film. It all combines to make Mr Nobody seem like a science fiction movie after all because Nemo has the power to feel the other lives he’s living that resulted in other choices he could have made (a talent the Angels of Oblivion sequence – more below – seems to point to).
And amid whole crazy structure are scenes that confuse, bind and possibly symbolise everything going on, from the baby Nemo right through to Leto lying in a hospital bed covered in heavy prosthetics. In one example, there’s a scene of Nemo aged about eight walking down the street of a pleasant neighbourhood when he passes a park bench where all three of the little girls who’ll grow up to be his wives in each life say hello.
There’s a recurring image of smoke rising from a cigarette, and how it curls and dissipates away into a room, Nemo’s voiceover asking why the smoke can’t go back into the cigarette – further cementing the theme of the how time moves inexorably in only one direction (a notion the final moments of the film then seems to overturn). In other scenes, he wakes up in a bathtub to be shot dead by a gangster assassin. He seems to grow up with a British accent and then have a North American one as a grown man.
Similar talismans, motifs and philosophical water-muddying pepper the movie narratively as well as visually. After being interviewed by a young reporter (Mays) doing a story on him, the old Nemo ends up telling the man the world they’re living in isn’t even real, all of it being imagined by a young boy standing on a train station as the buildings outside start to calve off into nothingness. Even his name – Nemo – (‘Omen’ backwards, giving more weight to the idea of knowing everything about the future) is Latin for ‘Nobody’.
”Mr Nobody” is also full of disparate styles, some scenes bursting with colour and kitschy 50s music, some dreamy and ethereal. If you’re not usually given to cry in movies, the Angels of Oblivion scene in particular will test your limits. The whole film has a very eclectic soundtrack anyway, but it’s set to a track called God Yu Tekkem Laef Blong Mi, a pidgin English version of an 18th century hymn.
Sung by a Melanesian choir (and originally composed by Hans Zimmer for the soundtrack of Terrence Malick’s ”The Thin Red Line”), it’s the backdrop for a world made completely of white light. Children scurry and dance happily about while a unicorn dawdles around with them – the place where souls live before they’re born.
Nemo’s voiceover explains how, before it’s your turn, you know everything that will happen. When he and a few other kids’ time falls due, two angels float down from the sky and pass a finger down each child’s upper lip, causing them to forget everything they know. They then sink into a body of gluggy liquid and go to Earth to choose parents to be born to.
The air of innocence and joy is adorable, the girls playing the angels (sisters Alice and Juliette van Dormael – daughters of the director) beautiful, the visuals stunning and the music heart wrenching. Even without the rest of the movie it would make a gorgeous sixty-second short film.
But as the high, innocent child’s voice of Nemo says, the angels missed him, which might be the reason behind the whole movie – Nemo’s ability to see all possible futures that will result from his choices.
There’s a parallel to 1990’s ”Jacob’s Ladder” (which I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen either film), but at the old Nemo’s assertion that the world they live in isn’t real, it seems the whole movie might be a series of flash-forwards imagined by his child self as he stands on the train platform trying to choose whether to stay with his father or run after his mother.
Trying to review the movie in its entirety is as cumbersome as it would have been trying to make something so weighty and beautiful. It’s about the butterfly effect, the interconnectedness of things across, within and between times and so much more. The visuals are clear, crisp, lush and stunning. Writer/Director Jaco van Dormael has a beautiful sense of symmetry, balance and movement that makes every frame a work of art.
Critics are divided, but if you’re lucky you’ll be on the positive side, because ”Mr Nobody” will do two things far too films do. First, before it’s even over you’ll feel it’s one of the best movies of the year. Second, it will make you transcend your own life and concerns. It won’t just make your forget your problems for a few hours – all movies do that by virtue of giving you something outside yourself to concentrate on – but it connect you with larger ideas, makes you appreciate the universe outside your own skin, life and your own time here.
Expansive, sumptuous, lush and heart-rending, it’s like being touched by the divine.