Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody is an ambitious project in terms of concept and structure. The film dissects life’s struggles and achievements through an examination of infinite choices, possibilities, and outcomes. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and this film functions as a vehicle to demonstrate this idea. An individual’s path in life can be broken down into a series of junctions defined by choices, actions, and responses. Each junction setting the stage for the next and influenced by the previous. Dormael accents this powerful exploration of the human mind with a mosaic of differing camera shots and editing styles. The final result is a challenging concept that loses some of the impact through convolution.
The story revolves around Nemo Nobody, played by Jared Leto, a 118 year old man that is the last “mortal” in a quasi-immortal landscape. The film focuses on his “memories” of youth into adulthood and the different possible paths his life may have taken. Three general storylines stem from whether or not he stays with his father or mother after their divorce, and result in him either being with Anna, Elise, or Jean. Each storyline has ups and downs and generally end in a depressed state.
Mr. Nobody teeters between fate and free will. In the beginning of the film we are shown footage of a B.F. Skinner’s experiment conducted on pigeons. The experiment requires a pigeon to press a button in order to gain access to food. The pigeon is quickly able to learn the task and gain access to food. Access to the food is then set on a timer. When access to the food suddenly becomes available to the pigeon it determines that this sudden access must be due to some simultaneous action on part of the pigeon. This is shown by the pigeon, coincidentally, flapping its wings at the same time the door to the food opens. “[The pigeon is] convinced that its actions have a decisive influence on what happens. We call this pigeon superstition.” This sequence is designed to prime the viewer for the role that choice plays in the film.
At first glance, it would appear that every choice Nemo makes leads him down a different path. Now this is true in terms of specific situations, but in a more general sense the arc remained the same. Each choice leads Nemo to different cities, different relationships, different experiences, etc… However, no matter what choice Nemo makes he is still faced with sacrifice, struggle, pleasure, and death.
The root of every decision eventually comes back to whether the young Nemo stayed with his father or if he caught the train to be with his mother. Once “all” possible outcomes have been exhausted, he is forced to choose the lesser of the evils. His decision seemingly leads him to the happiest ending, but it is unclear as to where it goes from there. The story is left open and is not definitive in terms of his happiness.
The film’s theoretical framework around the nature of time and space is captured by both content and form. Dormael uses a number of diverse shots and editing techniques. The editing team, Susan Shipton and Matyas Veress, had their work cut out for them on this picture. I am not sure the best way to describe this film’s flow. Mr. Nobody is constantly moving and at an alarming rate; blink and you are sure to get lost. The film consistently reminds us of entropy and the universe’s proclivity for diffusion. It mirrors this ideation of chaos and disorder through jarring cuts, uneasy and multi-angle camera shots, jumping between timelines and time frames; the list goes on and on.
Mr. Nobody takes complex, theoretical ideas and mixes them with experimental, avant-garde film style in a high production, main stream film. This ambitious project is a double-edged sword in regards to its hurried pace and editing style. It certainly stands out with thought provoking messages and complex sequences of shots, however it is also convoluted at times and full of scenes that only seem to derail the viewer unnecessarily.
Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael
Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne
Written by: Jaco Van Dormael
Music by: Pierre van Dormael
Runtime: 2hr 21m
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Romance