This week sees the very limited release of Jaco Van Dormael’s strange, unique, metaphysical epic, Mr.Nobody—which first screened at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, then subsequently flopped across various European territories in 2010, and has been hidden from US audiences ever since, all but forgotten. Budgeted at a huge $50 million, it only grossed $2.3 worldwide, making it one of the most expensive disasters of recent years—possibly ending it’s director’s career, and resulting in Jared Leto’s five-year hiatus from acting.
And of course, the saddest part, is that it’s bold and brilliant, flawed in fascinating ways, and the kind of large scale, FX driven yet intensely personal director’s visions that we see all too rarely these days. Imagine the narrative scope and complexity of Cloud Atlas, the surreal existential enquiries of Charlie Kaufman, and the free associative style ofAmelie—with its immediate cinematic illustrations of a character’s inner world—and you might get an inkling of what the film has in store.
Charting the cradle-to-grave journey of Jared Leto’s protagonist across not one, but three possible lifelines, from his parent’s courtship to his final breaths as a 100-year-old man in the distant future, the narrative weaves in and out of the past and the present, digressing across time-lines as well as intellectual tangents and dreams, and juggling its many flights of fancy with a fast, humorous style that often resembles a live action cartoon.
It’s exactly as ambitious, and frequently messy, as that synopsis sounds, but it’s also consistently engaging, funny, stimulating and moving. It also carries the added thrill of watching a director completely go for broke, as though Jaco Van Dormael figured he only had one film to say absolutely everything he wanted to about life, love, fate and free will, and used every creative, cinematic trick he could think of it to do it.
Sadly, the film’s spectacular financial failure all but assures that he won’t get another chance, and certainly not on this kind of budget or scale. Jared Leto is a revelation in the lead role, whether buried under old age make-up or playing the three versions of his younger self as his life branches off in three different directions, ably supported by a wonderful supporting cast including Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Juno Temple, Miranda Otto and Rhys Ifans. And though the film ultimately gets a little muddled, forgoing its more interesting themes for a somewhat conventional love-conquers-all ending, the journey itself is well worth taking, and will resonate with anyone who’s interested in cinema’s potential to explore deep personal questions in inventive and entertaining ways.
I would urge anyone with a taste for idiosyncratic, uncompromised film-making to seek it out and give it a chance, as it very much deserves to be re-discovered, celebrated, and given a second life within our cinematic consciousness.