168. MR. NOBODY (2009)

“Oh, my God, and when you got up in the morning, there was the sun in the same position you saw it the day before—beginning to rise from the graveyard back of the street, as though its nightly custodians were the fleshless dead—seen through the town’s invariable smoke haze, it was a ruddy biscuit, round and red, when it just might as well have been square or shaped like a worm—anything might have been anything else and had just as much meaning to it…”–Tennessee Williams, The Malediction

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FEATURING: , Toby Regbo, Sarah Polley, Natasha Little, , , Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham

PLOT: In 2092, after all disease has been conquered through cellular regeneration technology, 119-year old Nemo Nobody is the last mortal man left in the world. He recounts his life story to a psychiatrist and a reporter, but his memories are wildly inconsistent and incompatible, and at times fantastic and impossible. In his confused recollections he is married to three different women, with multiple outcomes depending on choices that he makes in the course of his life; but which is his real story?

Still from Mr. Nobody (2009)


  • The genesis of this story came from Jaco Van Dormael’s 1982 short film “È pericoloso sporgersi,” about a boy who must make an “impossible” choice between living with his mother or with his father.
  • According to Van Dormael the script took seven years to write, working about five and a half hours a day, every day.
  • Van Dormael published the Mr. Nobodoy screenplay (in French) in 2006, one year before production began and three years before the film was completed.
  • Despite being made in 2009, the movie was not released in the U.S. until 2013, and then only in an attempt to capitalize on the Oscar buzz surrounding Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyers Club.
  • Leto temporarily retired from acting after Mr. Nobody, spending the next four years focusing on his band Thirty Seconds to Mars.
  • Mr. Nobody’s first name, Nemo, means “nobody” in Latin.
  • The movie is full of visual tricks and illusions, some of which are so subtle that they’re easy to miss. For example, watch for a scene where Nemo enters a bathroom then focuses on his own image in a mirror. When he turns around and the camera follows him back out of the room, we now see the perspective as if we had passed through the mirror; the reflection seamlessly swaps places with the real world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Mr. Nobody‘s essential image is of branching, criss-crossing railroad tracks; if you want something with a little more surreal zip, however, check out the scenes of a fleet of helicopters delivering slices of ocean, slowly lowering them into place on the horizon.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Essentially an experimental narrative film disguised as a big-budget science fiction extravaganza, Mr. Nobody, an epic fantasia in which the protagonist lives a dozen different lives and a dozen different realities, was doomed to be a cult film from its inception. Even with a healthy dose of romantic sentimentality and whimsy a la , it is far too rare and peculiar a dish for mainstream tastes. The opening is confusing, the moral ambiguous, and reality won’t sit still; it’s got unicorns, godlike children, helicopters delivering the ocean, a future world where everyone has their own genetic pig and psychiatrists are known by their facial tattoos, and a malformed sub-reality where everyone wears argyle sweaters. It’s unique, unforgettable, and utterly marvelous.

Original trailer for Mr Nobody

COMMENTS: One of the enigmatic Nemo Nobody’s many possible past identities is a TV science lecturer who explains such esoteric concepts as pigeon superstition, string theory, and the Big Crunch hypothesis to a lay audience. While each of these speculative theories helps to ground the movie’s plot contrivance—which involves one man living many parallel lives—and to flesh out its philosophical themes—which revolve around the interplay of choice, chance, and fate—one crucial quantum theorem is only mentioned implicitly. “Did Elise die, or didn’t she?” asks the exasperated journalist who’s been listening to the 119-year old Mr. Nobody recall contradictory versions of his life story on his deathbed. “I don’t get it. You can’t have had children, and not have had them.” This objection brings to mind, naturally, Schrödinger’s cat, the fabulous feline who has confounded generations of college sophomores with its astounding ability to remain alive and dead at the same time. So long as a box in the thought experiment is not opened, the cat is simultaneously both alive and deceased; and so, even at nine years old, Nemo realizes “as long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.”

As long as nine year old Nemo does not choose a path in life, an infinity of possible lives lies before him. Mr. Nobody explores a number of these lives, with Nemo ending up married to one of three different women, with each of those romances ending on a different note depending on further choices Nemo makes down the line. The movie explores about a dozen of these branching possibilities, flitting back and forth between storylines, considering each fascinating alternative in turn. In one of Nemo’s alternate lives, he woos and marries a moody blond named Elise. In one variation of that future she dies and leaves him a young widower. In another iteration she lives on and bears him three children, but is bedridden with melancholia. A brilliant scene shows this Elise, played by Sarah Polley as a tear-stained wretch whose beauty has been ravaged by sadness, wrenching herself out of bed and forcing herself to celebrate her daughter’s birthday party. It should be the ultimate humiliation for a pre-teen girl when her clinically depressed mother crashes her party, dancing maniacally in her bedraggled nightgown, but miraculously, mom’s a hit: the kids are too young to appreciate the difference between desperation and enthusiasm.

That party scene is a mixture of triumph and tragedy that might have been the climax of a lesser film. Here, it’s almost a throwaway moment in a movie so stuffed with life and ideas that each individual sequence becomes its own reality. You never know what the next scene might bring: the eroticism of hair rising on a caressed arm, the whimsy of unicorns prowling about among the unborn in the beforelife, the surrealism of an argyle reality. You fall out of one mini-story and into another. The camera pans back from Nemo’s bedroom in Canada to show a long shot of a vista that turns into a postcard on a table in Nemo’s room in England. Nemo escapes his van, which has plunged into a river, by swimming out the window, unexpectedly surfacing inside a bathtub in another reality. Visual puns abound: my favorite involves a pair of oncoming headlights as Nemo stands in the road and tries to stop a car that’s carrying away his teenage lover. Seemingly random but actually tightly composed, the narrative is a rhapsody, a suite of vignettes on a common theme. Everything is jumbled up and contradictory, and yet it makes perfect sense.

There has never been a movie quite like Mr. Nobody. It contains multitudes. There are as many morals, as many interpretations, as many meanings as there are scenes. It is, however, clearly fascinated with the idea of the burden of choice as the basis of human existence. How is choice possible, and what does it mean? In one reality, a frustrated Nemo, scorned by a lover, decides to plan his life out meticulously, detail by detail, leaving nothing to chance. He decides who he will marry, where he will live, how many children he will have, and even what color his convertible will be. He swears he will not stop until he’s succeeded, and he does so. Yet, when he achieves his plan he is unfulfilled; so one night, he carves the words “yes” and “no” on a coin and leaves every subsequent decision up to chance, which sends him on a fatal adventure. In this fork of Nemo’s possible life, neither his own willpower nor surrendering to fate could save him. He had lost any chance at happiness at some previous branching point; this Nemo perched on a dead limb.

When the journalist from the opening finally breaks down in complete despair and begs the dying Nemo Nobody to tell him which of the stories is the “right one,” the old man responds, “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.” This notion makes some intuitive sense; every individual life has dignity and meaning, right? It is Nietzsche’s notion of amor fati, the love of our fate: since the consequences of our actions are not completely in our control, we must embrace whatever we are, whatever we choose, otherwise we are doomed to live lives of resentment.

But, will it satisfy the audience to hear that any outcome of Nemo’s story is as good as any other? Does old Nobody even really believe that every one of these paths is “the right one”? Do his actions match his words? For, at the end of his life, he utters a name as his dying words, and a scene plays which convinces us that maybe one of these lives, one choice, was superior to all of the others—maybe one result is the “right” one, after all. One of Nemo’s potential loves speaks of “renouncing all possible lives for one.” Can we reconcile the idea that each of Nemo’s lives would be meaningful and worth living in itself with our instinct that one of the three wives is the best match for Nemo, one story is the best outcome, one is “the right one”? Which one of these meanings is correct? Do we have to choose between them? Or are both incompatible options simultaneously true? Maybe that’s just how it goes when we’re dealing with Schrödinger’s plot.


“…van Dormael gets trippy like nothing Fincher, Aronofsky, Malick or Bergman have done.”–Fred Topel, Screen Junkies (festival screening)

“…closer to surrealist poetry — albeit inspired by quantum physics — than anything else.”–Michael O’ Sullivan, The Washington Post (2013 release)

“Some movies are simply too strange to put into theaters.”–Roger Moore, Movie Nation (2013 release)

OFFICIAL SITE: Mr. Nobody (official movie site) – North American Mr. Nobody distributor Magnolia’s site includes eight film clips, stills, and a pressbook

IMDB LINK: Mr. Nobody (2009)


Toronto Film Festival Press Kit – includes interviews with producer Phillipe Godeau, director Van Dormael, and actors Leto, Polley, Kruger and Pham

Jaco van Dormael – The return of a hero – Profile of Van Dormael conducted during the filming of Mr. Nobody by The Independent

Jaco Van Dormael’s Mr Nobody, starring Jared Leto – Short interview with Van Dormael from “Monsters and Critics”

Mr. Nobody (Comparison: Theatrical Version – Director’s Cut) – A very detailed explanation of what you’re missing if you watch the 141 minute theatrical cut instead of the 157 minute director’s cut (courtesy of movie-censorship.com)

DVD INFO: Magnolia’s belated North American video version of Mr. Nobody (buy) was ultimately worth the frustrating four-year wait. You get the full length director’s cut (fifteen minutes longer than the theatrical version, and the version currently streaming on Netflix and other digital services), plus an additional six minutes of deleted scenes, a 45-minute “making of” featurette, and an “AXS TV” spot that is basically an extended version of the trailer with some soundbytes from the cast. The Blu-ray (buy) includes the same features.

Mr. Nobody is available to rent or buy on-demand in either the 139-minute theatrical cut or the 156 minute director’s cut (they’re the same price, so you might as well take the extra 17 minutes).

(This movie was nominated for review by “Michiel.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

5 thoughts on “168. MR. NOBODY (2009)”

  1. I’m convinced that the Wachowskys and Tom Tykwer tried to rip off “Mr. Nobody” when they were doing their much more mundane and mediocre “Cloud Atlas”. The similarities don’t end with the fact that both films were shot both at Babelsberg and in Canada. What Tyker and the Wachowskys were describing as their supposedly own original ideas in their early press conferences on the project that would be “Cloud Atlas” (and where they horrifyingly failed to deliver on all accounts) sound a lot like what van Dormael achieved both visually and narratively with “Mr. Nobody”, and many shots and sceneries are similar (such as a car in the water with the camera under water as well, or a character being shot in the bathtub by a contract killer), only pulled off much more shoddily and with a lot less talent in “Cloud Atlas”.

    Also, I think that what we’re seeing are not Nobody’s “past” identities and that the premise can be summed up much shorter: What if there was a person that could foresee, in detail, every possible future? I think that the entire movie actually happens in Nemo’s mind while running after the train with his parent in it, and that he ultimately chose the optimal future for himself to ensure his old age and live long enough to experience the universe’s Big Crunch so he would never die.

    I don’t think old Nemo means *MORALLY* right, but rather genuine, as in, “did it happen, or did it not happen, was it real or was it not real (= “had meaning”)?”, as for him, it all happened in his mind. It’s not so much Nietzsche’s amor fati, as Nemo did ultimately chose one path over many others, but rather a statement of the nature of reality as he sees it due to his special gift: It all happened for him, although only one path also became visible for the people around him because he chose it.

    1. I absolutely adored Mr Nobody but I don’t think the suggestion that Wachowskys and Tom Tykwer ripped it off is accurate as Cloud Atlas is based on a 2004 novel by David Mitchell, and is quite a faithful adaptation of it.

    2. Cloud Atlas is a brilliant book written by a brilliant author. As a movie, all the Wachowskys did was film the mechanism through which the story was told, but not the story itself. That is why Cloud Atlas is a visually beautiful film, but seems devoid of any real meaning. Because… it is. It only briefly touched on the concepts of oppression and what one people will do in order to justify oppressing another.

  2. As I understood, Nemo had experienced all of the past lives and at the end of the film he was going back through his latest life to start again and make some new choices along they way.

  3. Damn, I watched the theatrical cut without realizing it… It was still fantastic though. Did I miss much by not watching the director’s cut?

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