April 30, 2015

Mr Nobody: an introspective on life

I’m writing this after my first viewing of Jaco Van Dormel’s “Mr Nobody” (2009), starring Jared Leto. Needless to say I was touched by the message put magnificently into play. If you don’t feel like reading a movie review, let me put it simply for you: watch it and see for yourself. Before you go and do that, allow me to address a few remarks:

  • I watched it rested, in a calm environment and taking breaks whenever I felt like it. I suggest you do the same, this is a movie filled with small messages and deep thoughts, you should take the time to fully grasp them.
  • I used good headphones and an HD copy. This rule goes for most movies, but I’d like to make sure you don’t go watching an ugly AVI ripped version of it. There are some stunning visuals ahead and you’ll be missing out on one of the movie’s notable qualities.
  • I kept an open mind, explanations were coming later on. This isn’t one of those “handed out script” movies. You have to watch the whole movie in order to understand it. And that goes for the first viewing, I’m betting on me completely changing my mind after the second one.

Now that we’re through with the notes, you can close this page and start watching it, spoilers ahead.


Introduction: the pigeon’s association of cause and consequence

Immediately before presenting the characters and putting the storyline into motion, we’re presented with what I thought at first was the Pavlov effect. Classical conditioning of a pigeon by having it associate pressing a switch for rewards. The catch is that when presented with a reward with no obvious cause, the pigeon will quickly wonder what did i do to deserve this?. The analogy with our own lives is clear, the great question that we ask ourselves after any trauma.

The pigeon's superstition

For reference, the pigeon superstition is part of the works of B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist from Harvard. An unrelated but amusing fact: Skinner had the unusual idea of using pigeons to guide missiles during the second world war.

Plot analysis

Back to our feature presentation: at this point I thought the movie would be corny and full of déjà-vus. Turns out I was actually right about part of that statement, but we’ll see that later on.

The main character is Nemo Nobody, which translates to Nobody Nobody. Such an unusual name is probably used to emphasize the blankness of the character, and how we should identify ourselves quite seamlessly.

The mishmash in time and memory

At first we’re thrown into what seems to be multiple possible deaths for, either by accident (car crash in the lake), by human hand (shot in the bath) or by cold nature (asteroid shower). The story now begins with a centenarian Nemo waking up in a futuristic world. Nemo is plagued with Alzheimer due to his old age, and people seem to be working on keeping his memories together before his death.

Old Nemo's struggle for memory

The story’s pace increases as Nemo goes through back, forth…and sideways in time, living different versions of his life, trying each choice as it presents itself. Nemo doesn’t seem in control: he’ll wake up in bed next to his wife Ellie, look away for an instant and find another woman beside him, claiming to be his wife Jean. Adult Nemo also suffers from some form of amnesia, forgetting the name of his son, which could fuel another interpretation: maybe the older “Mr Nobody” is inventing his long lost memories to cope with his memory loss. Maybe the contradictory versions of his life illustrate the severity of his illness and his detachment from reality?

The supernatural origins of Nemo are skimmed through, showing how Van Dormel focused his interest on displaying consequences rather than causes. Presented as is, the story of the angels of Oblivion feels ludicrous, exaggerated to mirror Nemo’s parents’ view on his abilities.

The angel's silencing touch

Another pursuit of happiness

The plot revolves several elements of Nemo’s life

  • young Nemo lives a somewhat happy life until an unlikely accident changes his dad, eventually causing his parents to split up
  • teenage Nemo lives with one (both) of his parents, searching for young love
  • adult Nemo tries to make sense of his life, striving to be happy in a world definitely against him

These points can be reduced to the simple search of happiness, but the fact that they are all consequences of previous events separate the film from the other classic pursuit of happiness genre (my personal favorite being Life is Beautiful). Mr Nobody is a film entirely about choice, and how these ultimately affect us.

As Nemo confronts new choices, the possibilities grow exponentially in front of him, displayed metaphorically by the endlessly dividing railroad tracks. Van Dormel amusingly divides these choices visually, either through a photograph, the toss of a coin, or simply the three different colors for Nemo’s three possible wives.

The angel's silencing touch

The paths we take

While the storyline is interesting and the message is powerful, nothing makes a movie like a deep emotional attachment to the characters. Nemo follows many paths due to his past choices and finds love in different ways: altruism, art or just passionate love. He finds himself helpless against the universe’s unforgiving butterfly effect, whose consequences range from separating his parents to losing the love of his life, becoming paraplegic to suffering a deadly car accident. The message intended is clear as crystal: life is short, live as much as possible. Old Nemo repeats it himself: “I’m afraid I haven’t lived enough”.

A large part of the film analyses love and its implications. Each of the three love stories Nemo has shows a different aspect, one sided love clearly being impossible, no matter how hard the other person tries to work it out. The most noticeable version is the story of Nemo and Jean, often overlooked by the critics as shallow or empty. To me the blankness of Jean’s character reflects Nemo’s interest in her and his obsession with greatness in that universe.

General opinion

The plot and initial setup were a little misleading. The narrative form made me think “Oh great it’s going to be filled with flashbacks”; it was becoming cliché at an alarming rate. Still I always try to get a good 30 minutes into any movie before judging it.

The psychologist made me chuckle with his ridiculous amount of face tattoos. I believe the choice of such an unrealistic and inhuman futuristic world was extremely well thought out. After all, I entire world came out of the imagination of a 9 year-old kid!

The romance between Nemo and Anne was probably one of the most passionate and convincing I’ve ever seen on film. It is by far the strongest emotional aspect of the film, bringing tears to my eyes when they are finally reunited after being separated brutally…twice.

In effect, Mr Nobody is a film I would recommend to any pessimist, its raw emotional power breaking through the ice and striking the viewer with realisations on himself and the world we all live in. The acting of Jared Leto is-as usual-flawless, as he battles for happiness.