Mr. Nobody {Jaco Van Dormael, 2009} This entry is a work in progress…

Dan W Pierce

Mr. Nobody {Jaco Van Dormael, 2009}

Mr. Nobody. Wow. Where do I start? This film has so much going on that I think I’ll just start with how I discovered it. That seems a little easier to tackle and will help me segue into the actual analysis/deconstruction of this incredibly ambitious filmmaking endeavor.

I’ve been living in LA for just over two years, and volunteering at the American Cinematheque for about a year now. I go to a lot of screenings, and have a pretty good calendar system, which helps me organize what screenings I want to keep an eye on from The Cinematheque, The New Beverly, The Nuart etc. I had just completed the calendar for the month of December when my French friend came over and immediately grabbed a marker and proceeded to highlight “Mr. Nobody”. “You HAVE to see this film,” she said, so I agreed I would. Cut to; the day of the screening when I am tired and don’t feel like taking the bus all the way from Silverlake to Santa Monica, and much less to see a Belgian film where I will most likely have to read subtitles (I was tired and didn’t want to read!). I just wasn’t in the mood, but I had promised her I would see it, and I didn’t want her to be disappointed in me so I jumped on the bus and headed to the Aero.

As noted above, I was already in kind of a grumpy mood. All I kept thinking was “This film better blow me away”. As soon as Peter DeBruge of Variety introduced the film, I started to realize that I was in for something really special. And then the film started, and I was totally hooked. It should be noted that Mr. Nobody is actually in English, which definitely helped my enthusiasm for it (I’m not a subtitle hater, I just like to get the performances in my native language). Suffice to say I walked out of that screening and called a close friend of mine from back home (Maine) to inform him that “I have just seen one of the best films made in the last ten years” and I truly meant it. I was deeply moved and would continue to think about this film incessantly for the next 3 weeks.

So what was so special about Mr. Nobody? Why did I order the $35 bluray online immediately after getting home from the screening? What propelled me to watch it 2 more times once the bluray arrived, and then call a bunch of friends over and screen it for them? If this film is so special than why have you not seen it, or even heard of it for that matter?

According to the introduction of the film and some random chatter I heard after the screening the story seems to go something like this…

Mr. nobody was made for a whopping $58 million (although IMDB shows 47 and others have stated 60). That might not seem like a lot in the US, but for Belgium it’s unheard of, especially when you factor in the genre of the film. Oh sorry, I haven’t gotten to that yet, but let’s just say it isn’t  some big-budget Hollywood science fiction film akin to Transformers (cringe) or Avatar, or even an action movie with a lot of explosions (not to say it doesn’t have eye candy). So what exactly is Mr. Nobody and why did it require so much money to make? It’s probably up for debate, but I would categorize Mr. nobody as something of a cerebral/sci-fi/romantic/drama (CSFRD). That’s right, all that money was put into a beautiful, experimental, thinking film, and the results are amazing. The financial aspect relates to the fact that this film is ambitiously attempting to create about 9 films in one, and one temporal film (inside joke). It’s beautifully shot and crafted in a way to help separate all of the stories and ideas that are happening, some of which do actually require some pretty fantastical visual elements of science fiction storytelling.

It apparently took 5-6 years for the project to get off the ground, and once completed its initial runtime was cut by about 16 mins. It received positive responses from film festivals, but was never accepted at Cannes. It then had an incredibly rough time with distribution, despite being in English, and having a recognizable American actor. So the film never even got an American release. In fact it was never even screened in America until two years later at the LA film festival. It simply fell through the cracks and disappeared.

And that is why I am sitting here spending my time writing about it. I love films like this and I feel a duty to let the world know about them. I constantly hear people say “Nothing is original” and “Hollywood just keeps making the same crap, sequels and remakes etc”.  Well for anyone who wants something incredibly refreshing and different, something that will keep you up at night thinking, and maybe even change the way you view life, look no further. Mr. Nobody will do just that.

So there’s my intro, now lets get into the film itself and try to analyze and deconstruct this incredibly ambitious undertaking from director Jaco Van Dormael

If you go to the wikipedia page you will find that others have already done a pretty good job of breaking down the different storylines and ideas as well as themes and technical aspects (use of color and sound etc). So what else is there to talk about!? Well a lot actually. Mainly I want to give my feedback on the film by introducing my thoughts and ideas about it. Whenever I see a film, whether I like it or not, I try to break it down and understand why I felt the way I felt. Maybe these thoughts will help others to look at Mr. nobody in a different way, or better understand the complex storylines.

Note: ‘Mr. Nobody Chart’
You can look through the wikipedia page, and/or use the visual chart which I created below as a reference to the story. The wiki page actually has some errors [the Old Nemo on the television in the abandoned house is not 118 yrs old he is actually 104. “I am you, seventy years older” to the 34 yr old Nemo.] The chart displays the 3 main age groups horizontally with the differeing storylines flowing vertically through them. The ‘Argyle’ world is represented to the right side in white and flows down to the bottom and 4th age stage. The chart does not show his unborn self or the story leading up to the train station. Confused yet? Hopefully the chart will work as a quick visual reference, for those who have seen the film, to be utilized in tandem with this article. For those who haven’t seen the film, the chart will hopefully shed enough light to allow you to follow the logic. If not, go see Mr. Nobody…NOW!

I’ve seen Mr. nobody about 4 times in the last month, and I’ve tried to really pay attention and gather information accurately. That being said, even on the fourth watch I realized that I had gotten some stuff mixed up and had to either go back and edit the visual chart, or re-write something I had written previously. So don’t be afraid to bring an error or something to my attention. I don’t want to mis-represent anything. Bear with me, it’s not easy to have 100% accuracy when writing about a two and a half hour long mind-bending film.

Mr. Nobody Begins “What did I do to deserve this?”
Mr. Nobody begins with a very simple yet thought-provoking visual of a pigeon problem-solving a man-made environmental task. This is used to set up both a later version of our main character Nemo, AKA Mr. Nobody, as well as introduce us to some of the primary themes/concepts of the film; instinctual responses, superstitious behaviors, causes and effects, and even karma, to name a few.

The pigeons are represented as creatures that only understand their survival instincts and respond accordingly. They are not privy to the greater forces at play i.e the scientists pulling the strings and formulating circumstances to analyze their behavior. Nemo on the other hand does have access to the man behind the curtain, because he is the wizard. At the end of the film it is revealed that he is the architect of all the storylines that we have been presented with. The problem is that his gained knowledge, does not necessarily make it any easier for him to make a decision.

The parallels between the pigeons and humans in the film could relate to a number of things. To me a broad view would be to say that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The pigeons just live. That’s it. And this seems to be a re-curring theme represented by the oldest version of Nemo. He is consistently emphasizing the importance of living life;
“Life is a playground, or nothing”
“Each of these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning”.

Weird continuity or story issues. If 9yr old Nemo leaves with his mother and her new boyfriend, then why is the boyfriend introduced when Nemo is 15 in Montreal as if Nemo didn’t know him. And why is he also introduced to Anna as if he didn’t know her?

What’s up with Nemo’s father? Is he handicapped due to an untold branched story where he is hit by his car instead of the woman with the carriage? He also seems to have memory issues; often forgetting Nemo is his son.

What is the idea behind people’s hair on mars? It seems to be wrapped in plastic, or covered in some kind of clear gelatin. Is this to keep hair from getting into important electronic equipment or something?

Why the use of Argyle patterns in the one bizarre storyline? Is there any significance or is it just a way to separate it visually from the other storylines?

And as revealed at the end of the film, everything exists within Nemo’s undecided 9yr old mind. SO put simply, Nemo is the pigeon only he is able to see the strings of his environment and alter them. The problem is, even knowing the result of something doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to make a decision.

There are remnants of all the stories within each other. All the stories come from the same source “The Architect” so they all have similarities and things that relate back to Nemo as a 9yr old boy. The pools, the sci-fi writing (he can predict the future). He has the ability to see the future so it makes sense that he would be a science fiction writer, because he can see into the future 😉

The Argyle world has the scene where he finds his mother with a different son. This further helps reveal this storyline as one in which Nemo does not exist. At least not in the sense that he was born to his parents. Is this storyline created by the unborn Nemo? Parts of it are narrated by him, it seems. But it could also be him at age 9?

Similar Films/Possible Influences
After watching Mr. nobody I couldn’t stop thinking about all the ideas it contained and the relationship of those ideas to other films. As I’ve stated multiple times, Mr. nobody is very ambitious, in fact it seems to contain elements of all these films…
Donnie Darko/The Matrix/Run Lola Run/Source Code/What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?

Symbols and Representations of The Butterfly Effect
Leaf/Butterfly/Egg Shell/Birds/Purchase of jeans/Drug addict at the train station


12358 Alois Street

“Wouldn’t seem like much fun, knowing what’s going to happen” –Anna age 15

The Arrow of Time. “What will become of time?”

“Have you heard of the butterfly effect?”

“What did I do to deserve this?”

“I don’t understand, did you go with your mother or stay with your father?” (check this quote, happens right before the shoelace scene)

“Do I really Exist?”

“How do we distinguish between illusion and reality?”

“Why do we remember the past but not the future?”

“I’m Mr. Nobody, the man who doesn’t exist”

“As long as you don’t choose everything remains possible”

“I will never leave anything to chance again”

“There comes a time in life when everything seems narrow. Choices have been made. I can only continue on. I know myself like the back of my hand. I can predict my every reaction. Everything is predictable. My life has been cast in cement, with airbags and seatbelts. I’ve controlled everything. I’ve done everything to reach this point, and now that I am here I’m fucking bored. The hardest thing is knowing whether I’m still alive.”

“They say that if you slow your breathing time slows down”

“We’ll meet near the lighthouse”

“And this is what I have been waiting for all this time. Renouncing all possible lives for one only, with you”

“A single snowflake can bend the leaf of the bamboo” –Chinese proverb

“Life is a playground, or nothing”

“Everything works out in the end. Even badly”

“Each of these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning”

“In chess it’s called zugzwang. When the only viable move is not to move”

“My producers don’t like me saying it, but it’s really a big-budget experimental film about the many different lives one person can live, depending on the choices he makes. It’s about the infinite possibilities facing any person. There are no good or bad choices in life. It’s simply that each choice will create another life for you. What’s interesting is to be alive.”-(Director) Jaco Van Dormael

Mr. Nobody Storyline Flow Chart

Mr. Nobody_Visual Reference


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