Thursday, April 11, 2019

Jack of All Fates, Master of None: Mr. Nobody Ten Years On

Jared Leto and Diane Kruger in Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody (2009).

There’s nothing in the world more terrifying than a restaurant menu. I stick to a handful of oft-frequented establishments precisely to avoid the vertigo of too many options. It’s not that I’m afraid of ordering the wrong thing – just the opposite: Everything looks so equally good that I can’t pin down a standard against which to differentiate them. I often joke to new friends sitting across the table in exasperation that menus open up an existential abyss within me, forcing me to reconsider the very ideas of “choice” and “value.” I used to think that knowing what every dish tasted like would help me make a decision. Then I saw Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation a decade ago this September.

And yet it doesn’t seem to have stayed in the cultural consciousness. That’s a pity. The plot, dealing with a branching personal timeline, is intricately complex yet masterfully coherent, despite what a few overworked film critics have written. The crux of the film lies in the making of momentous decisions, in the meaning of indecisiveness, and after ten years I’ve still yet to see a more comprehensive and penetrating depiction of the fundamental crisis of growing up and taking responsibility for your own life. The film’s climax resides not in the resolution of the plot (how do you resolve indecision?) but in its coalescence; but said plot is presented in such a complicated way that to really get at the heart of the film, you have to make sense of it first. On paper it looks like a series of binary oppositions, but the film cuts between branches at the slightest opportunity, out of sequence and according to visual links, often without regard for chronology, emphasizing the similarities, echoes, and missed opportunities between the branches. They all unfold in tandem, multiple possibilities of a single life.

Here’s a definitive summary. It’s the year 2092, on the 118th birthday of Nemo Nobody (a multifaceted Jared Leto; “nemo” is Latin for “nobody”), and humans have achieved quasi-immortality via regenerating stem cells. As he’s the last mortal man, now on his hospital deathbed, the world is interested in Nemo’s life story. Nemo himself still thinks he’s 34; his cognitive dissonance (“I need to wake up!”) segues into a sequence that reverses the mirror shot in Contact: He wakes up middle-aged and goes to the restroom, and the camera enters the mirror to finish the scene with everything flipped. This is our first sign that Mr. Nobody isn’t just another sci-fi story.

To recover his memories, Nemo is hypnotized (“an old technique”), ending up a 34-year-old in a headspace where everything is plaid, his clothes and shoes squeak, he casts two shadows, and a sky banner tells him to sleep – the epitome of uncanniness.

Nemo’s memories begin before birth, when he knows everything. The Angels of Oblivion forget him, so after he’s born he can recall not only the past but also the future(s). He grows up an only child (played by Thomas Byrne) in a nuclear family and gradually learns about the irreversibility of time and the irrevocability of choice, which makes him indecisive. As he says while walking by Anna (coded red, denoting passion), Elise (blue for sorrow), and Jeanne (yellow for wealth), the three possible loves of his life, “As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.”

Jared Leto in Mr. Nobody (2009).

Up to this point, the film’s kitschy aesthetics – bright colors, contrived mise-en-scène, and use of variations on “Mr. Sandman” for background music – evokes his childhood idyll. But one day, Nemo espies his mother (Natasha Little) secretly meeting and kissing a man who turns out to be Anna’s father (Michael Riley). His parents separate, and as his mother’s train departs and she stretches her hand out the carriage door, he must make a choice. The narrative splits.

In one branch, he catches his mother’s hand, and they move from England to Canada. Anna’s single-father family follows a few years later, and a sudden passion erupts between the two teenagers (Toby Regbo and an astounding Juno Temple). Their parents, upon discovering the relationship, consider it incestuous (the film’s positive portrayal of step-incest makes it ahead of its time), and Anna’s dad moves her to New York; she implores Nemo, “Wait for me near the lighthouse, every Sunday.” Nemo moves to New York as an adult and lovingly waits there every Sunday until they finally meet again. Adult Anna (Diane Kruger), having shut out her emotions to anyone but Nemo, says, “I’m not used to it anymore – you know, love, I mean. . . . We need to take some time.” She gives him her number when they part ways, but it’s blurred in a sudden downpour caused by a butterfly in Brazil; he never sees her again.

In the other branch, Nemo doesn’t catch the train. In his teenage years, his father (Rhys Ifans) becomes disabled and forgetful, and most of Nemo’s time is spent taking care of him. He becomes a nerdy loner who writes science fiction about Mars. At a party, he sees Elise (a deeply unhappy Clare Stone) arguing with her boyfriend, and she leaves with Nemo to spite him. Before parting, she makes Nemo swear to scatter her ashes on Mars, and he promises. A love-struck Nemo stands outside her home the next day with love letter in hand, but as he sees her walking out a few steps behind her boyfriend, he makes the decision to leave, opening a new branch in which he gets into a traffic accident and is hospitalized, unable to move but still conscious. This branch then follows his Martian story, unfolding in his imagination. He goes to Mars to keep his promise to Elise, and on the return trip, right after meeting fellow passenger Anna (no recognition, but some mutual attraction), the spaceship is destroyed by a meteoroid cluster, thus ending the branch. In reality, he dies.

In the branch where Nemo delivers the love letter, Elise protests that she loves her boyfriend. Here, another split appears. If Nemo accepts this, he’ll decide to marry the next girl he dances with, who happens to be Jeanne (Audrey Giacomini). On the way home with her, he makes “a lot of foolish decisions”: to “never leave anything to chance again”; marry Jeanne (played as an adult by Linh Dan Pham); become rich; have a big yellow house with a garden and two children, “Paul and Michael”; have a red convertible and swimming pool and learn to swim (he never learns); and to continue pursuing these goals until successful. He succeeds, but his life is spiritually empty, and realizing this prompts him to break with his first decision and walk out of the house guided solely by coin tosses. This leads surreally to his being gunned down – end of branch.

If Nemo kisses Elise before she can finish her protest, they end up getting married (Sarah Polley delivers a gloriously self-loathing performance as adult Elise). In a short branch, their newlywed car is engulfed in flames from an oil-truck explosion, and Elise dies. Nemo henceforth becomes obsessed with reversing time by taking photos of decomposing things and animating them in reverse. Whether the explosion occurs or not, Nemo hosts a science education TV show, and segments from the show foreshadow and provide scientific grounding for plot events; topics broached include time, reproduction, the butterfly effect, and cosmology – especially the theory of the Big Crunch, when the universe reaches a “phase of contraction,” at which point time just might reverse itself.

If the explosion doesn’t occur, Elise becomes manic-depressive, and their family life, with three kids, is dreary. Elise concludes that she’s depressed because she still loves her ex-boyfriend, and she leaves Nemo. A short interlude follows, presenting a world completely set off from most of Nemo’s plot branches, signified by a curtain-raising. Elise is a hairdresser who pines for her ex-boyfriend – in he comes to get his hair cut and washed, yet from entrance to exit, neither recognizes the other.

Sarah Polley as Elise in Mr. Nobody.

Thus concludes the various possible lives of Nemo Nobody. After hearing Nemo’s entire life story, a bewildered journalist asks, “Everything that you say is contradictory. . . . Of all those lives, which one – which one is the right one?” To which Nemo replies, “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 the uncanny headspace of hypnosis, Nemo is led to a dilapidated version of his home with Elise, where a recording of himself at 118 years of age tells him that he doesn’t exist, that the Big Crunch will indeed reverse time, that it will happen on his last birthday, and that he must stay alive till then. He does, and we can’t but wonder if the fact that he doesn’t exist has anything to do with being the first human to experience the reversal of time (everyone else is quasi-immortal, immune to time’s finality).

The real narrative frame is Nemo’s recollection of his futures while standing on the train tracks, trying to decide which parent to choose; none of the developments after that point have yet come to pass. Old Nemo and the journalist watch as their futuristic world disintegrates. Nemo explains: “The child is taking it apart. He doesn’t need it anymore. Before, he was unable to make a choice, because he didn’t know what would happen. Now that he knows what will happen, he’s unable to make a choice.”

And there’s the rub. We want to make choices according to which choice will yield the best outcome, but what does that mean exactly? What if it brings us joy now but misery later? What if the worst tragedy begets the greatest bliss? What if something brings us both happiness and sorrow, not in equal measure but intertwined in the same emotion? As Mr. Nobody has it, I quake in hesitation before a menu not because I can’t tell what it’d be best to have, but because there’s no basis for comparison: Each dish creates its own unique and inherently valuable gustatory experience. What do I choose? How do I decide?

The child Nemo stands on the train tracks at a crossing, wracked with indecision. As his life slowly draws away from him, as the moment of truth slips away, his little head swivels left, swivels right. Finally, being rendered unable to choose by everything he foresees, he runs off along the intersecting street. This plotline (not just another branch) skips directly to the end: Nemo and Anna reunite by the lighthouse, and the old Nemo begins to relive his life, backwards.

This is the secret to how Nemo chooses: He accepts everything, affirms every possibility, and opts for an entirely different path. His affirmation of whatever may come down that path – his affirmation of a future he doesn’t attempt to recall – is an affirmation of life itself, what Nietzsche calls “amor fati” or “love of fate.” And this utter joy in life leads him at 118 years old to say, “This is the most beautiful day of my life.” Mr. Nobody tells us that the secret to choosing is to choose; the secret to life is to live. Having reached the Big Crunch, Nemo can live his life once more, in its entirety and without alteration, and this makes him a very happy man.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.