A moment of uplift n Jaco Van Dormael's Mr. Nobody
Jaco Van Dormael's latest film Mr. Nobody (2009) is only his fourth ever feature (his previous work Le huitième jour (The Eighth Day) was released some fourteen years previously) and it's every bit as bewildering, mind-bending and confusing as anything he's ever done, if not more so.
His first feature Toto le Heroes (Toto the Hero, 1991) told the story of a bitter old man--bitter mainly because he believes he was switched at birth, and if this had not happened, his life might've been better. The film switches back and forth from memory to fantasy to revenge scenario often without warning, and in this it seems at least partially inspired by Dennis Potter's memory dramas, where memory serves to complete an often fragmented narrative, and fantasy illuminates the characters' innermost wishes and dreads. As with Potter, the end combination was emotionally potent with each element supporting and reinforcing the others; Toto le Heroes remains, to my mind, Dormael's finest work.
Dormael's follow-up The Eight Day takes up an old premise--that a simpleminded innocent can change a modern man's life--and again with his fragmented time scheme breaks up the familiarity, makes it surprising and fresh again (though not, unfortunately, so fresh it makes one completely forget the hoariness of the original premise).
Mr. Nobody takes off from Dormael's by-now familiar style: start with an old man full of secrets, proceed pell-mell at whatever direction for full chaotic effect . Dormael has added a few other tricks, not just bouncing from past and present or reality and unreality, but from one alternate reality to another, starting from the moment Nemo (Latin for 'nobody') decides at the train station to either go with his mother to North America or stay behind with his father in England. There are some openly science-fictional elements (in one scene we see Nemo lying in bed, the 'world's oldest man,' and the last, thanks to modern medicine, to be dying of old age; in another a space ship is flying to Mars).
Hell with science fiction--the SF elements seem more like an afterthought, a way to flex digital effects muscles than anything actually important to the flow of the story (mention is made of superstrings and Schrodinger's cat though far as I can tell that's all they are--mentions). As for the latter--what story? The picture seems to be following two childhoods, three romances, a handful of fateful decisions, a variety of deaths, a side-story involving the science-fiction story Nemo in one of his several careers is writing, and a wrap-around narrative involving the 117-year-old Nemo being interviewed for his memories. Think Nolan's Inception was complicated? Not really; as I once put it Nolan for all his gimmicks is strictly a linear plodder.
This one is nothing if not nonlinear, and glides from one thread to another with if anything too much ease. Dormael's picture would be too bewildering--actually, is too bewildering--if it weren't for Sarah Polley playing Elise, one of Nemo's wives. Polley, an excellent actress, manages to make her thread involving, especially one scene where she suffers extreme depression and is unable to attend her son's birthday party. She determinedly sits up, walks out of her bedroom, teeters into the middle of the party going full swing, and tries to join in--the scene's a miniature masterpiece of mixed pathos, comedy, horror, suspense, hitting an intensity Dormael isn't able to maintain.
Otherwise--call this Dormael's folly, an overambitious, overreaching, overlong film stuffed full of vivid moments, memorable surrealism, and, at least for a moment, searing emotional honesty. It all feels like Dormael just threw in everything he had, and beyond this has little else to say, but the sheer volume of what he's dumped, the sheer complexity of what he has wrought is a sight to see, nevertheless, impressive and intimidating in equal measure.