Mediacinema Blog

A film recommendation

When students ask me for suggestions about recent films that might be worth watching, analyzing, and learning from, I often reply by saying that they should turn their attention away from cinema and direct their young curious minds to something else: television (see my previous post about this topic).
However, there is one film that I like to recommend to everyone who’s looking to experience an original cinematic approach to storytelling. I’m talking about Mr. Nobody (2009), one of the most fascinating, intelligent, and underestimated films of the previous decade (1). Poorly marketed in Europe and ignored by every distributor in the U.S., this spectacular $47 million dollar Belgian-French-German-Canadian co-production in English language is a rich and complex tale of parallel narratives that springs from the mind of the main character, Mr. Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), a 118-year-old man who recounts the story of his life in form of three possible existences that he might have lived.
As writer-director Jaco van Dormael (Toto the Hero and The Eighth Day) explained, the starting point for this project was a 12-minute short he made in 1982 (È pericoloso sporgersi). “A kid runs behind a train with two possible choices: to go with his mother or with his father. From there we follow two possible futures. I started one version based on the fact that a woman jumps or doesn't jump on a train. Then Sliding Doors by Peter Howitt came out, followed by Run Lola Run by Tom Tykwer. I had to find something else. And that's when I realized that the story I was trying to tell was not binary, that I was above all interested by the multiplicity and complexity of choices. With this screenplay I wanted to make the viewer feel the abyss that is the infinity of possibilities. Beyond this, I wanted to find a different way of telling a story.” (2)
One could argue that similar experiments in parallel narratives had been conducted prior to (and even more successfully than) the aforementioned Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run. In 1948, for example, Preston Sturges had brought to the screen Unfaithfully Yours, a sophisticated comedy of hypothetical narratives based on a screenplay he had been working on since the early 1930s (see my analysis of the film in this book); and in 1993 Alain Resnais turned Alan Ayckbourn’s epic "what if" play(s) Intimate Exchanges into two films (Smoking/No Smoking), which are the results of the possible permutations that originate from the protagonists' choices.
Broadly speaking, already in the 1950s and 1960s, the literary experiments of Alain-Robbe Grillet and the French
Nouveau Roman, as well as the works of the Oulipo group (see Raymond Queneau and his Exercises de Style) seemed to have exhausted the possibilities of parallel storytelling and hypothetical narratives. However, not only the narrative structure devised by Jaco van Dormael is infinitely more complex and better laid out than most of the aforementioned works, but he also succeeds where many of his predecessors have failed, since the final result is not a a self-conscious exercise in meta-narrative, but it’s primarily a fascinating and highly entertaining film that grabs the viewer’s attentions from its opening montage of possible stories to the final narrative twist(s) that unveil the mystery behind Nemo’s recollections.

(1) The film is now available on Amazon on DVD.
(2) Errera, Isabelle (Documentalist) (August 2009). "Mr. Nobody, a film by Jaco Van Dormael".
Pan-Européenne (PDF). Unifrance. Retrieved June 7, 2012, pp. 5-6

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