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1001 Overlooked Movies - Mr Nobody (2009)

Belgian cinema's most expensive movie.

Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael
Starring: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham, Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little, Juno Temple


Mr. Nobody is the only feature length movie Belgian director Jaco van Dormael has made since 1996. According to Wikipedia, he had been trying to film the movie since 2001. When he finally managed to get financing it turned out that he would be making the most expensive Belgian movie ever made, with an estimated budget of €33 million (US$47 million).
When writing the film, van Dormael was influenced by movies like Run Lola Run and Sliding Doors. He wanted it to be more complicated than those movies and look at life as a whole and, in his words, “the abyss of infinite possibilities” that offers and that is exactly what he has managed to do with this movie. It is a movie which, unfortunately, is not widely known and one I always recommend to people first when they ask me about a movie they should check out.
From the moment the movie opened it managed to get me interested. During that opening you see an experiment with a pigeon that tries to get something he cannot reach. There is a block in the cage he is in, but I did not expect the pigeon to do anything with it since I thought not many animals know how to use tools. When it did I was surprised and that immediately hooked me, as I wanted to know what this movie would be about and how this related to what I was about to see.
A red line of science runs through this movie (the butterfly effect, string theory, entropy) and another experiment with a pigeon explains the concept of Mr. Nobody. This is a movie about the conviction of believing that our own actions have a decisive influence on what happens; but is this really the case? A quick succession of various circumstances the main character finds himself in initially confuses you. How can someone be shot, drown in a car and be in an exploding spaceship as well? The name of that main character is Nemo (which is Latin for nobody) Nobody and when the story really starts you find out that at 118 he is the last mortal who will die. The rest of the world can now live forever.
As a viewer you try to get your footing, but you keep getting thrown into a string of new scenarios. As Nemo wakes up again Dormael uses a great trick (which I didn’t even notice the first time I saw it) involving a mirror. Nemo goes to the sink and the camera actually heads towards the mirror and goes through it to end up in a different reality, which is an exact mirror of what you first saw. Nemo has different wives, different children, different lifestyles and sometimes time itself even reverses. It’s stuff that makes the gears in your mind start grinding. Surrealistic imagery makes you think this all might be someone’s strange dream, but as the movie progresses the big mix of stories and imagery slowly starts to untangle.
The concept of the movie is stunning and is explained by a young version of Nemo Nobody. When we are not born yet (and are waiting with all the other unborn children) we know everything that will happen but forget that when we are born; but what if that is not the case? It questions what it is to exist and what makes you the person you are. There are many more questions asked and a lot of them are ones you will relate to as you ask yourself these one time or another. It looks at the decisions we make and the consequences of those choices.
When you don’t commit to choices those might remain available for a while (like not eating a cake yet) but once you choose you are stuck with that choice as time progresses and does not go backwards. It means your life might have turned out completely different based on only one small choice. I know I can think of a couple of choices in my own life that have done that. If my first job as a teenager had been somewhere different I would have turned into a very different person who wouldn’t listen to the music I do now or would have missed out on many great experiences. It makes you wonder what would have happened, but I don’t regret for a moment how my life has turned out. I know that if I had made those different choices my life might be different, but it would be alright as well, we are formed by our own decisions and the consequences that come with it.
The movie uses a huge number of sets, sometimes making use of specific colors to make clear which of the stories you are watching. Also a lot of modelling, practical effects and CGI are used to make this feel like a movie with a couple of hundred million dollars budget. Dormael knows the bag of tricks he can use and does so effectively. The movie effortlessly mixes time lapse segments with slow motion shots, tight closeups, tilting cameras and extreme zooms, which don’t just make this movie a feast for the mind, but also for the eyes. It is a rich tapestry of feelings as well: about love, loss, fear and depression, which all are very close to each other.
Jared Leto carries the film, but the rest of the cast is good too. The role of Nemo and his wives are played by different actors at different ages but even the youngest actors play their parts convincingly. The love story between Nemo and Anna when they are young is the part that stands out because Juno Temple and Toby Regbois are great in their roles and manage to convey that feeling of love at a young age.
The first time you watch Mr. Nobody I am sure it might be way too much to take in and during it there are many moments you will forget or cannot exactly place in the correct context and that to me is also something I enjoy. You can rewatch this movie a second or a third time and still see new details or make new connections to make sense of it all. Although it is a different sort of complexity when compared to a movie like Donnie Darko, it is not a movie you can just watch while you shut down your brain. It is not mindless fun (although it is enjoyable).
It is a movie that forces you to pay attention to every little detail, to see what the consequences are of making your decisions and concluding what life means to you. It is exactly that deepness, that philosophical way of asking questions, that attracts me to these type of movies. I think too little of them are made. Sure, I enjoy mindless action movies a lot as well, but I also like to be challenged on this level and this movie succeeds in that. I feel a strong connection with this movie on an intellectual and emotional level and that is the reason I enjoy it so much. If you have not seen this yet I really strongly advise you to go check it out as soon as you can as I am really interested to find out what you think of it.


The official "1001 Movies" list includes the following movies from 2009 - The Hurt Locker, Precious, District 9, Inglorious Basterds, Avatar, The White Ribbon, An Education, The Hangover, In the Loop, Fish Tank


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