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Jaco Van Dormael: Mr. Nobody

img  Tobias Fischer

'Mr. Nobody' (2009), only the third feature film of visionary Belgian director and screenwriter Jaco Van Dormael, is released a full thirteen years after the award-winning 'The Huitième jour' (Engl. title 'The Eighth Day', 1996) and eighteen years after his incredible debut, 'Toto le Héros' (Engl. title 'Toto the Hero', 1991), which secured the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991, a César 1992 for best foreign film and was a winner at several European Film Awards in 1991. With three films in almost twenty years, Jaco Van Dormael could easily compete with the other ‘big lonesome boy' of international cinema, the American Terrence Malick: four films in over thirty years in the period 1973-2005 (with 'The Tree of Life', his fifth film, about to be released in December 2010).

Putting aside statistics and nonsense, it’s almost trite saying that it’s been well worth waiting thirteen years for Van Dormael to take his place behind the camera again, if the result is as intriguing as 'Mr. Nobody'. Complex and prismatic, it had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 where it won ‘minor’ awards, and is the most expensive movie ever made in Belgium, played in English by an international cast. Jared Leto in particular gives a very convincing performance and remains an actor who is not only interesting but also ironic: The frontman of rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, in the guise of Nobody, unflinchingly takes a trip to Mars in order to keep a promise.

But who is this character of Nemo Nobody, from which the film takes its title? Is he the oldest man on the planet, the last destined to die in a synthetic future where no one gets sick and old anymore? Is he a successful entrepreneur with a boring life and a wife he's not in love with? A pool-guy in search all his life of the beloved woman he kissed for the first time as a teenager? Or has he been married for years to a depressed and constantly complaining woman who spends her days in bed commiserating herself? Who really and how old is Nemo Nobody? Where does he live and when has he lived? In 2092 or in 2009?


By quoting the Italian writer Luigi Pirandello we could say that Nemo Nobody is, 'One, No one and One Hundred Thousand'. In Latin, 'Nemo' means in fact 'nobody' and Nemo is not only the name of the main character of Jules Verne's science fiction novel 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea', but also the false name that Odysseus in Homer's poem 'Odyssey' gives to the cyclops Polyphemus, to deceive him and save his own life. Sometimes to be nobody means to be able to survive, able to find a way to save oneself and move on: that is exactly what happens in the film to Mr. Nobody, a man without a past and without memory, unable to remember and therefore both unable to live and die.

Thanks to the unique visual talent that made him famous, Van Dormael builds four parallel universes that communicate with each other. Space and time chase and almost merge into each other. Colours, shapes, textures and patterns, constantly changing, 'recreate' the Seventies, the Nineties, the Two thousand years and a future that owes much to George Lucas, Peter Weir and Luc Besson. The viewer passes continuously from one era to another, from one life to another, from one marriage to another, from childhood to old age. What is real and what is fake? Where does the dream end and where does life begin? Is this only a hypnosis? Or the dream of a nine years old child, unable to make a decision bigger than him and so well 'decided' not to decide at all? What happens when we decide not to decide? Does chance take a decision for us?

'Mr. Nobody' is a jigsaw puzzle or, to use the metaphor chosen by Van Dormael himself, a Russian doll where the viewer can get lost, finding more questions than answers. The film does not let up and spreads games, clues, movie quotes and 'coded messages'. There are in particular two visual elements that return obsessively: the water of a swimming pool, which is fluid and mobile 'par excellence' and yet trapped in a limited space, just as limited as the choices we make between an infinite range of possibilities. And then there's the image of the chessboard, to symbolize the difficult game that everyone plays with life. The director borrows for his hero one of chess's most complex and fascinating particularities, that of 'Zugzwang': the player is forced to move but knows that, no matter which move he decides to make, he will suffer the consequences, which may be to lose a piece or the whole game. Yet he has no choice: he must move anyway. Until we take action, agreeing to suffer the loss, the game will not continue. The same happens in life, trapped in a limbo of days that are all the same, meaningless and linked with the past, in which a sense of déjà vu is pervasive.

Or is it just a dream?

Azzurra Camoglio is a Freelance Translator and Movie Critic living in Berlin. Follow her on Twitter and visit her blog.

Mr Nobody

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