After originally being finished and released in Europe four years ago, Jaco Van Dormael‘s deeply metaphysical Mr. Nobody finally sees release in the United States.

Nemo Nobody is a man completely lost, seemingly thrown between lives, somehow doomed to die only to wake up and do so again, stuck in tragedy. The lines between dreams and reality are profoundly blurred as the film skips forward and backwards through time. He’s at once in constant motion and stuck in time. Nemo is the last mortal alive in a future of quasi-immortality. His memories confused or non-existent at 118 years old. This seems to be the prime narrative as a doctor tries to bring forth his memories, a feat only successful when a journalist sneaks in after hours to interview him.

It starts off strong, introducing concepts left and right, keeping the viewer on their toes. The butterfly effect, the discovery of self and most importantly choice: “As long as you don’t choose everything remains possible.” From there we see fracturing paths, how his choices would’ve shaped his life. Further philosophical musings are introduced, such as a divine pre-birth period where groups of children know everything that will and has happened before being wiped clean by the Angels of Oblivion and eventually born. This of course doesn’t happen to Nemo so he’s effectively prophetic.

The film deals heavily in repetition. Repeated uses of Mr. Sandman, with its lyrics about being brought a dream, evoke the ever-present sense of a dream world or a place at least not fully real. Water, a life force, comes up again and again, both in Nemo’s inability to swim and it’s ironic use as he’s seen to drown in a sinking car (only to wake up and be shot in a bathtub). It’s a divider and a joiner, an important junction in his love stories and life in general. There are other profound ironies in the film such as his central ability to see the future when it’s so clearly illustrated how fragile the passage of time and turn of events are.

Things do begin to jumble as Nemo’s own fictional writings are visualized, a deep space mission with tangential relations to the main plots but it might perhaps be unnecessarily obtuse.

There’s also an inherent flaw with the multi-life plot. We get three separate love stories with unequal amounts of attention. As a result all three of the main female roles, and Nemo’s relationships with them, are negatively affected. They become at best two-dimensional, either completely dependent on Nemo, the man in their life, or almost absent.

When Nemo says something to the effect that he couldn’t live without a certain person, why are we supposed to believe him? There are clearly two other people that he’s supposed to love in equal capacity, though the film does in fact clearly emphasizes another over her. This serves to disconnect you from the characters, making it hard to invest when the film so clearly wants to make you feel something. It also has a tendency to go overly melodramatic, apparent in the inevitable break ups of relationships and the often overly saccharine nature of the love on display.

The film also becomes inconsistent, as it seems to revolve around the choices that Nemo makes in the situations he’s in but things are sometimes inexplicably changed by outside forces which are beyond his control when he’s returned to the point of decision. This concession is clearly made only to enable a secondary chain of events.

Vignettes where Nemo is explaining physical and metaphysical concepts like string theory and attraction, as part as of an informational show that one of his lives involves, feel completely over expository. It’s the easiest way to deliver the concepts to the audience, by simply telling them bluntly in talking head fashion, but it’s hardly elegant.

While Jared Leto is great as the adult and later elderly, in pretty good makeup, iterations of the character and the youngest is also compelling to watch, the adolescent Nemo is more hit and miss. Sometimes he’s able to channel teen angst and young loving warmth (at least when teamed with Juno Temple, mostly) but on others his delivery is flat and off. A scene where he screams on a scooter and when he shouts Anna’s name in the street are a resounding thump rather than an emotional kick.

It’s a beautiful film, filled with vivid color compositions and contrasts. Artful use of slow motion draws one’s attention not only to the motion of the characters through their lives but also to little bits and pieces that fit into the director’s ambitious philosophical intent. An example of this would be a pivotal scene where we see Nemo choose both his mother and his father when she’s leaving. ‘Choice’ imprinted on a sign in the background as he runs towards the train containing his mother and ‘Way Out’ hanging above his father as he looks back and stumbles.

Life is about choices. Nemo is Nobody because he doesn’t actually make choices. Because his past, his memories aren’t defined, he isn’t really a person. They try to force him to remember but he can’t because the memories don’t actually exist. The film is at its best when it’s about this. It’s neatly laid out in a scene where Nemo captures images of rotting food and decomposing animals to create reverse time lapses, an attempt to master time, an act futile even though he can see the future. There’s though an omnipresent sense that the point could’ve been made in manner more concise and elegant. It leaves you grasping for meaning for large swaths of the film before it pulls itself together before the end.

Final Verdict: There’s a lot of good in Mr. Nobody; A central performance, visual flourish, editorial skill and a whole heap of interesting concepts and ambition. It’s however burdened with girth and some oblique superfluity that must be endured for the ultimate reward. It remains supremely interesting and a thoroughly worthwhile watch, one sure to spark conversation, transcending many of its flaws.

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Written By Sverrir Sigfusson

Tall, dark and handsome. Student of film theory at the University of Iceland. Purveyor of news and reviews. Consumer of fine music, quality films and fantastic video games. Opinionated and brutally honest yet totally nice and a huge fan of colorful pants.

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  • This Is My Handle

    As I understand it, the “fictional writings” to which you refer are “actual” events lived by the eldest Nemo, as evidenced by the sub-dermal implants which can still be seen in some of the later dialogues with him. Obviously (poor word choice there), it’s no more real than any other story line created by “The Architect”, but referring to his writings as fictional precludes that they are more unreal than the rest of his reverse-memoirs, which is not the case.

    As to Nemo’s relationships with the three leading females and the unevenly divided attention between them: In my opinion, they were crucial to the development of the plot insofar as the lessons that Jared Leto’s character derived from them. Therefore, it should be closely analyzed the effort that was put into giving each relationship screen time. In one, Nemo was shunned by the object of his affections, and thenceforth made a brash decision to control his destiny to every possible extreme, as his prophetic abilities enabled him to. His wife was not a love interest, but a catalyst in his more brash experiments. (e.g., his use of a coin to determine all crucial decisions, his pre-planning of life)

    In another, Nemo was NOT shunned by the object of his affections, and he lived a misery-fraught life with her because he knew that the eventual grief of living with her in a manic-depressive state was still less than that of if she were to die in an accident on their wedding day (Hence, repetition of “I can’t live without you”). The puppet-like iteration of the film’s more abstract concepts, while certainly easier for the viewer than… something else… could arguably be the manifestation of his grief at the loss of his wife, and the shadow that cast over his ideals.

    In the last, Nemo finds the tropic, idyllic love that everyone dreams about, and pursues it with every fiber of his being, and being content with that, (if not having a firm basis in reality). It’s here, I believe, that Nemo really learns that the only bad decision, is indecision (or at least, inaction). Namely, not going swimming, not pursuing her, living life waiting for her, only to have her snatched away again by fate, etc. That aside, it’s certainly the most emotional story arc for me, and I imagine that was the intent.

    To close, I’ll say that the negative effects you propose to be the fault of non-equivalent screen time were all along supposed to be integral components of the plot. Within the context of three separate story arcs, it doesn’t make sense to compare the love Nemo has for each lady, but contextualizing it within the ONE, (or rather, the one with the tangential offshoot where she a.) lives or b.) dies) can help to elucidate his meaning. And that’s about as far as I’m willing to defend the movie that I’ve obviously fan-boyed hard enough over to speak my mind to one Mr. Sigfusson who is both more knowledgeable on the subject of film, and of a fairer disposition to adequately critique the film. I stand by your rating!

    Annnnd good day sir.

  • Sverrir Sigfússon

    Thank you for your comment, and an excellent one at that. I wish everyone could disagree with such a level of eloquence and levelheadedness.

    Of the Mars scenes I’ll say that they’re at the very least oddly structured into the film and if it is supposed to fit into his entire life his age doesn’t gel with his supposed modern (that’s our modern) look. He’d have to be older, it just seems a bit off to me.

    In regards to the love stories the film tells us multiple times that there’s no right choice and that all the paths are as valid, except they clearly don’t give as much to the others as they do to the main one with Anna, therefore they aren’t as valid. They become a means to an end instead of characters. It just didn’t hit as hard, emotionally, as the filmmakers would’ve intended. And I really wanted it to. However, I do think you’re pretty much entirely correct in your analysis.

    As it stands, I still think it’s a good film and one that’s really fun to talk about. I’m also glad that you disagreed with me so well.

    A good day to too, hope to see more of your comments here.