Mr. Nobody is Belgian auteur aco Van Dormael’s third feature film of the last 20 years. Prolific, he ain’t. However, when the end result is a film as magical and beguiling as this one, such sluggish activity can be forgiven.

In one of the most baffling, yet beautifully shot, opening 15 minutes of any film we are introduced to Nemo Nobody in a variety of different guises: as a boy, an 118 year old man, a 34-year-old man living in three different realities with three different families, and on Mars as a creation in a novel of one of the three 15-year-old versions of Nemo. And that’s just the first 15 minutes. You will need patience and concentration in abundance, but you’ll be more than well rewarded.

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Jared Leto plays the aforementioned Nobody as the 34 year old and, using some eerily convincing prosthetics and make up, the 118 year old version of himself. The year is 2092 and Mr Nobody is the last mortal alive on earth - that is, he’s the last person alive who will die. In a future drawn from the same inkwell as Philip K Dick’s dystopian visions, mortality is no longer an issue as people are able to infinitely replenish their healthy cells.

Nemo is the star of a reality show, which involves watching an old man with crippling memory loss slowly die – yes, reality TV can get worse. His psychiatrist, complete with odd tattoos covering his face, tries to extract Nemo’s past memories without success – no one in this future society knows who Nemo is, as he doesn’t exist on any public records. As Nemo’s life is about to be decided by the public through a poll on the reality show – let him continue to slowly die, or get rid of him now – a journalism student sneaks into Nemo’s room and begins earnestly questioning him about his past.

This is where Dormael’s film really begins to fizzle with an abundance of ideas, most of which are beautifully realised. Before he is born, Nemo appears as a young boy in what seems to be heaven. The film works from the perspective that children are born as fully realised individuals, with complete knowledge of the events they are about to enter into. This memory is wiped by the angels as they send the kids to their prospective parents by gently pressing their finger onto the lips of the young in a gesture of silence, which also leaves that little indent above our top lip. However, the angels pass Nemo by and he enters our world full of this knowledge.

The film curiously toys with big ideas around fate and determinism, with the same irony and lightness of touch – yet with the same underlying melancholy – as Paul Thomas Anderson's peerless Magnolia. Nemo’s dialogue serves to emphasise the point, with lines such as: “As long as you don’t choose anything, everything is possible”, and, “Most of the time nothing happened. Like a French movie”. While the film’s themes prod and poke the viewer towards something approaching profundity, the visual design lulls you into a sense of wonder.

Dormael, and cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, manipulate the image into the same pointedly appealing and winkingly ironic visual palette of a Wes Anderson film. Shots are seamlessly welded together through a changing of space and time. For example, we begin a shot in Nemo’s 15-year-old bedroom in the reality in which he lives with his mother in Canada. The camera glides from his bedroom, out through the window revealing the picturesque house he lives in. The camera continues back further – the pretty house is now a postcard on a table in England - to another version of 15-year-old Nemo’s world where he chose to live with his father instead. All of this seemingly in one luxurious shot. This is the magic of cinema.

The question of which version of Nemo’s reality is true, if any, is one that may infuriate viewers. Is the whole thing the deliberately misremembered past of gnarly old Nemo, one final finger up to the futuristic society that has no place for him? Is it all the imaginings of the 15-year-old Nemo, who writes science fiction from the safety of his bedroom? Are we really experiencing an objective vision of reality, one in which the decisions we make (or not as the case may be) do not lead us down a single path, but instead splinter off into other worlds? Who knows. And you know what? Who cares.

Beneath the interesting intricacies of Dormael’s worlds, and Nemo’s ability to manipulate time and space, exist real characters, with real emotions. This is not a shiny film about big bang theory or string theory, but a film about our inability to really make the most of the time that we do have.

And this is what separates Dormael’s film from the aforementioned Wes of Anderson. Beyond the visual eccentricities and smirking smarts there is not only an intellectual yearning but, more importantly, there’s real heart. Once we are thrust into the various different realities that are home to 15-year-old Nemo, we forget everything else and become wrapped up in the story of a vulnerable and lonely teenage boy, fighting with his first experiences of love. The part is excellently played by Toby Regbo, who not only nails the surly nature of teenage adolescence, but also manages to bring subtly different performances in the three different realities.

He is most successfully paired up with Juno Temple as Nemo’s true love, Anna – they are brought together by their parents’ relationship, but soon form one of their own. There are also terrific performances from the adult cast. Jared Leto is as good as he always is in the lead role, making you wish he’d act more regularly. There’s admirable support from Diane Kruger and, particularly, Sarah Polley as two of Nemo’s three wives - Linh Dan Pham has a much smaller role in the vision of Nemo's life in which he leaves nothing to chance, as opposed to everything.

Having never received a theatrical release in the UK or the US – and what a sad indictment of the prevailing conservativism in the film industry that is – and with a budget approaching a whopping $60 million, it seems likely that Dormael will again disappear into the wilderness, hoping someone will fund another of his grand visions some time soon. Mr. Nobody, however, will surely find a deserving audience now that it has finally surfaced on DVD. For fans of cinema that provokes thought and delight in equal measure – there’s more than a touch of Charlie Kaufman at play here – this will prove to be a pleasure. Just don’t try and figure it all out, simply let it play.

Reviewed on: 15 Sep 2011
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A tale that spans different time zones of the 20th and 21st centuries.
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Director: Jaco Van Dormael

Writer: Jaco Van Dormael

Starring: Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham, Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little, Toby Regbo, Juno Temple, Clare Stone, Thomas Byrne

Year: 2009

Runtime: 141 minutes

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