Sometimes, not often but sometimes a filmmaker will get a very personal vision intact up on the screen with no compromise and no studio to interfere with their vision. Examples I can think of recently include Darren Aronofsky with The Fountain (although somewhat scaled back from the 90 million Brad Pitt epic it started as) and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. When these films appear inevitably people are divided as to its merits. One man's masterpiece is another man's self indulgent tripe. Mr Nobody is a film that there is no doubt in my mind was the singular vision and musings of a middle aged man looking back at his life thus far and the decisions he made, that man is writer/director Jaco Van Dormael. The fact that this film got made and manages to be both small and heartfelt as well as having epic, brilliantly conceived science fiction scenes is astounding. It’s a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the end result but, like all good art, is still a film well worth discussing.
The story starts in the year 2092 and an old man named Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is the last mortal man on earth at age 118. All other humans have now become immortal through advances in medical technology. Nemo’s last moments are being televised to the rest of the world and during these last moments he is interviewed by an eager journalist (Daniel Mays). Nemo recounts a story about his life at ages 9, 15 and 34. In each of these time zones Nemo is presented with more than one option of a life of love and happiness and Nemo’s tale splits off in two directions each telling of a life he would have had had he chosen one path over the other. At age 9 he is presented with the option of staying with either his mother or father and in flashbacks we see what life would have been like in each of these alternate timelines. At age 15 in both timelines he meets a different girl and falls in love and at age 34 we see he is married in two different timelines to these two very different women. The journalist is understandably confused and we as an audience are left wondering what is happening, which reality is real? And what does the elaborate story of a man spending a vacation on Mars have to do with the whole thing? Does the oldest man alive have a point when he predicts a reverse ‘big bang’ where time will start to run backwards?
From that synopsis you can probably gather if you are likely to love or hate this film. It’s a film that does not explain things for you and asks you to make your own mind up. It’s wonderfully surreal in some scenes and if you get into it after a confusing first half hour then it’s quite the rewarding experience. If you fight it though and don’t go with the sense of nostalgic whimsy then there will be nothing but pain for you. The film deals with some weighty themes such as life, death, love and fate and does so in a pleasingly floaty way that feels like a trip down memory lane with a friend. At each split occurring in Nemo’s garbled recounting of his memories we see consequences and triumphs. At age 15 in one timeline he meets his half sister Anna in New York and falls in love. These scenes have a wonderfully hazy summer feel about them like a treasured memory and there is chemistry between the two young actors that is very rare in actors of their age. Anna then grows up into the delightful Diane Kruger and Nemo is young Jared Leto and their love affair of sorts continues as they meet each other again through chance encounters and fate regularly steps in to keep the lovers apart. In the other timeline Nemo meets a damaged girl whilst living in the UK as a teenager, she then grows up into a manic depressive Sarah Polley and this sad timeline makes you pine for the other better life with Anna. Sarah Polley is still a vastly underrated actress and her performance here as a woman quite literally out of her mind with mental anguish is amazing. Jared Leto steps up to this performance as a man who is deeply in love despite the character's very deep flaws. Leto has built a pretty good CV as far as acting jobs goes and this was his last film before he went full time with his band 30 Second To Mars. I hope he goes back to acting soon because he is a gifted character actor with leading man looks and those are the ones that stick around longest in the memory.
The future scenes in the year 2092 are very well realised for a film of this type. They are far better conceived than many of the supposedly futuristic visions of films with three times the budget. We see a large sprawling New York metropolis which reminded me of the interior of the huge starship that is mankind’s refuge in Wall-E. The fantasy sequences depicting a hypersleep vessel heading to Mars are also very impressive. The ship looks like the spaceship from Kubrick’s 2001 and I am sure this was intentional as this suggests that the scenes are a fabrication again based on Nemo’s fractured memories. Each frame of the film is wonderfully shot by Christopher Beaucarne giving each timeline and scene a particular feel from melancholy to nostalgia and love. There are some brilliant dream sequences that don’t take place anywhere except inside Nemo’s head. Some have young Nemo dressed in a certain patterned pullover that matches the decoration of everywhere around him following clues to unlock an answer and are simple yet brilliant visual puzzles with a paranoid Truman Show style feel to them.
The ending of the film is no doubt the point where it all comes to a triumphant head or falls apart under its own pretentiousness depending on which side of the fence you sit. For me I found the ending to be very fitting with what had come before and is definitely the cry of a man trying to say something about not regretting the decisions you make and living the best way you can with what you have. Nemo has been so racked with thoughts of what might have been that his memories are fractured and jumbled because he was not focusing on what was right in front of him. It’s a very noble thing to aim for on a 47 million budget and the ending, well all I can say about it is that it is an ending. It’s a shame though because the film doesn’t have much of an emotional pay off in the end. Considering all the good performances that have come before, you can’t help thinking it doesn’t amount to an awful lot.
Mr Nobody is a film that is remarkable by its very existence and that in itself is something to be happy about. You may love it you may hate it, but you can bet that you will never forget it.
Extras: Making of with Jared Leto interview, trailer.
Mr Nobody is out now on DVD and Blu-ray