What happens when what will someday happen exists parallel to what could have happened? When what didn’t happen is interspersed with what still could be?
Existentially confused? Oddly enough, that can be a good thing. In Mr. Nobody, Belgian filmmaker Jaco van Dormael takes on heavy questions of existence, choice, and consequence, and weaves them into a fragmented yet seamless tale of life, love, and loss. It is the story of Nemo Nobody: a child with a special gift of foresight and at the same time an old man with an elder’s share of hindsight and wisdom.
Far in the future (2092), Nemo is 117 years old and the last of the mortal humans. As the new immortals watch Nemo’s final days on some futuristic reality television program, a journalist and a psychiatrist seek to understand Nemo’s true story of choices and wisdom.
Over a hundred years earlier, young Nemo has reached a crucial point in his life: his parents, on the verge of separating, insist that he choose between them. This monumental decision (cruel enough for any child, let alone one who can see the future) is the crossroads from which several paths fork out into the distance.
From that point, flashbacks and flash-forwards are joined with sideways glimpses into the ever-changing futures branching forth. In some ways, the weaving in and out of time and reality are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. But while Vonnegut’s use of the flashback-flash-forward technique mirrors his hero’s own mental journey, Mr. Nobody‘s starts and stops and ins and outs mirror the thought process and understanding not so much of Nemo as of the viewers.
And That’s the key to Mr. Nobody, because the film’s beauty lies in its outside application. It’s not a movie you should watch alone, since doing so would lose so much. Rather, It’s one that generates a lot of discussion, a lot of tangents, and a lot more existential back-and-forth argument than you’d usually see outside of a room of philosophy professors.
Our discussions jumped from Schrodinger’s cat to the ten-dimension theory of the universe to prayer to Back to the Future to September 11 to the essence of reality to A Brief History of Time?at that was after just the first 10 minutes!
In some ways, the film embodies two theories of existence, one belonging to the young Nemo and one to the old. Young Nemo wants to know and control the future; since he believes knowledge and seeing are key to existence and reality, he wants to see and know all, to make each choice the one that will bear him the most happiness in the end.
Yet for all the emphasis on choice and consequence, human beings often face helplessness as we look to the future. Because our own futures are not entirely dependent upon our own choices. We can’t completely chart and control our destiny, because we’re united in minute and mysterious ways to every single person on this planet.
Ironically, the older Nemo has seen much of the randomness of life taken out of human existence, now that the secret of immortality has been discovered. Yet he feels that when everything is predictable, sewn up, and controlled, life becomes boring, and living untenable. In one scene, future Nemo wonders whether he’s really alive; in another, his obsession with recalling his myriad choices is whether he lived fully present in his past. And in many ways, he’s right; because sometimes, the bigger choice is not the decision-making itself but how we choose to live it out.
Despite the rapid flitting in and out of time and possibility, the viewer remains engaged, and That’s largely thanks to the solid performances of the cast. Jared Leto’s Nemo Nobody is a sympathetic hero whose dilemmas resonate with our own, and the supporting cast?particularly his three possible love interests (Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley, and Linh Dan-Pham)?is compelling and believable.
The film’s themes are supported by some really effective cinematography. Well-placed visuals of converging and diverging train tracks and falling water droplets give a nod to significant events in Nemo’s past(s)?while reinforcing concepts playing out in the present. Yet It’s artfully done, just subtle enough to enter the viewer’s consciousness without overpowering it.
There are some nice cultural nods too; for example, one recurrent musical theme is ?Mr. Sandman,? which is the first song Back to the Future‘s Marty heard when going back in time to 1955. And Nemo’s uncanny ability to see the future (yet inability to get those around him to believe him) is reminiscent of the mythological Cassandra.
So what is the exact relation among choice, chance, and consequence? The movie never really tells us. And although normally I prefer a neatly sewn-up conclusion, this film’s charm is that It’s anyone’s story.
One reviewer put it best: ?a lot happened and a lot didn’t happen.? But which is which, and to what extent, and why, is ultimately less important than how he?and we as viewers?arrived there. And what the viewer takes away from the experience is not the story of a man’s life, but the complexity of human existence.
Certainly, It’s a film that will have viewers talking, discussing, and pondering its themes and story long after the final credits have rolled.