15 February 2010

Van Dormael’s ‘Mr. Nobody’

Torn between choices:
And the name of the station is Chance.

The Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael doesn’t make many films: just three, so far. His first, Toto le Héros (Toto the Hero, 1991), holds the distinction of being the first film I saw in French without subtitles. My failure to comprehend great chunks of dialogue only added to the oneiric effect: Thomas, an elderly man, looks back on his life in regret, from the vantage of a nursing home in the dystopian future. Everything went wrong for him because, he is certain, he was switched at birth with his wealthy neighbor, Alfred. We join “Toto” in looking back, through prisms of fantasmagorical special effects, music, humor, and poetry.

Van Dormael’s latest film, Mr. Nobody, is in English, and it opened recently here in France. More ambitious even than Toto, it explores similar themes and packs a comparable wallop. I recommend it highly.

From Toto le Héros, Toto and Alice
(Sandrine Blancke, Thomas Godet)

In Mr. Nobody, Van Dormael again focuses on an elderly man in a nursing home in the future (mostly utopian this time). Again, his story, like his idyllic childhood, is shattered and depicted in fragments; again, he’s got troubling, mature, and not at all fraternal feelings for his sister — or, anyway, people tell him she’s his sister. Van Dormael is a whiz at capturing both the unformed logic and the developing sexuality of children, while eliciting memorable performances from child actors. (The standout in Toto was Sandrine Blancke as the sister, Alice, pure fire onscreen.)

Nemo does have regrets — but with significant exceptions. From the moment he’s asked to choose between his divorcing parents, each time he arrives at a crossroad in life, he takes both the path taken and the path not taken. Thus, we get multiple storylines, playing out kaleidoscopically. The actor who plays Nemo as an adult, Jared Leto, says he plays 12 variations on the character, and of course that’s not counting the Nemos who are played by Toby Regbo (age 16) and Thomas Byrne (age 9).

Things are not always what they seem.

Doubtless this sounds confusing, and at times, it is — it’s meant to be. The first time you see Nemo marrying three different women, in three countries, or dying repeatedly in different ways, you do wonder what the hell’s going on. Van Dormael holds our interest, luring us deeper into the tangled thickets by scattering tempting morsels of humor, music, appealing actors, and evocative tenderness. One such moment, the simple brush of shoulders between two kids on a beach, sparks a desire that endures through (nearly) all of Nemo’s lives — and to a vacation on the planet Mars.

Yet even when we see a cargo ship crash in Martian orbit — and the cargo, hundreds of bicycles, goes spinning into space — Van Dormael isn’t using special effects and science fiction for mere thrills. He’s up to something more serious here, as we come to understand through snippets of a lecture Nemo delivers (in a studio, as if for a TV program) on the big bang and chaos theories, the nature of memory, animal behavior, the space-time continuum and the existence of eight dimensions of which we know nothing. That’s just for starters.

Regbo and Temple

Van Dormael keeps all this grounded in that recognizably human story, beautifully photographed. I hesitate to use the term “science fiction,” because the movie is as intimate as any auteur concoction. (Better, in fact, because this script doesn’t run out of steam in the third act, as so many French movies do.) No matter what’s going on, there’s something private, personal about all of Van Dormael’s films,* and it’s surely no coincidence that he and Nemo share a birthday.

He also manages to find child actors who look sufficiently like their grownup counterparts to be credible, and who can perform with comparable maturity and impact. Regbo’s scenes with Juno Temple, as the young Anna, are especially impressive, conveying erotic heat and adolescent rebellion that are simultaneously childish and profound, the foundation of adult feelings. (Regbo is an alumnus of Hogwarts; Temple played the redheaded cousin in Atonement.)

Leto and Kruger

Nemo meets each of his three wives in childhood. He marries Jean (Linh Dan Pham) when the two other women are unavailable, and he describes her as “safe.” (Indeed, we see that, as a girl, she saved him from drowning; as an adult, when he strays from her, he winds up murdered in a bathtub.) The very security that Jean represents leaves the writer–director with little to say about her, and the actress with little to do. But Sarah Polley (as Elise) and Diane Kruger (as Anna) register strongly. Polley is especially good at holding our sympathy as Elise wrestles with an extravagant, often ugly mood disorder. And I daresay most men would defy 111 dimensions to be with a woman like Diane Kruger.

Jared Leto’s strongest characterization is as the elderly Nemo — 118 years old. Something about all that old-age makeup seems to have liberated him, such that I wasn’t at all sure it wasn’t somebody else playing the character. Unmoored from the anchor of his unearthly beauty, he smacks his lips with infectious pleasure, distorting his body and voice while portraying internal transformations, too. Yeah, he’s solid as the Nemo his own age (those yearning eyes speak volumes, as Angela Chase knew so well) — but as the old guy, he’s a revelation.

Not an old man made up to look like Jared Leto,
but Leto as Nemo in old age

Like Johnny Depp, Leto must struggle against being pigeonholed as a pretty face. (Both got their breaks on TV, too.) Not all of Leto’s attempts to prove or to challenge himself have been successful: I admired his work in Requiem for a Dream but wasn’t convinced by Lord of War, for example, and like most people, I missed his performance as Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. Sometimes his choice of films is more interesting than his choices within a scene; on the strength of his Nemo, I’ll keep watching, even if he falls short, some other time.

And I hope I don’t have to wait quite so long for Van Dormael’s next movie. Nemo is Latin for “nobody” and the name of two iconic heroes, as well: Jules Verne’s undersea explorer (many of this movie’s scenes are set in or around water) and Winsor McKay’s dreaming boy. By fusing these antecedents and adding much that is his alone, Van Dormael has created a worthy heir.

Random observation:
How agreeable to wake each day to see this in the mirror!
What a pleasure to shave in the morning!
(The young Leto as Jordan Catalano)

*NOTE: I know nothing about Van Dormael’s personal life, yet it strikes me that his interest in Down syndrome, a recurring theme, surely signifies something. Toto’s brother and one of the protagonists of Van Dormael’s second film, Le huitième jour, have Down syndrome, and the actor who played those characters has a small role in Mr. Nobody, as well.


Guybrush Threepwood said...

Hi! Congratulations for this post! It's great!!! I saw Mr.Nobody in the Festival of Cinema of Sitges the last october and the film it's absolutely AMAZING!!!

I've done two post in my own blog about the film cos in Catalonia the movie hasn't been seen yet...

Guybrush Threepwood.

William V. Madison said...

Gràcies! I'm looking forward to reading your blog.

a. said...

nice post!
i wanna see this movie too *-*