Mr. Nobody (film)

Mr. Nobody

A boy in between and a woman holding their hands, beside a train. Two hands reaching for each other. Half a man's face.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Jaco Van Dormael
Produced by Philippe Godeau
Written by Jaco Van Dormael
Music by Pierre Van Dormael
Cinematography Christophe Beaucarne
Edited by Matyas Veress
Susan Shipton
Distributed by Wild Bunch
Release dates
  • 12 September 2009 (2009-09-12) (Venice)
  • 13 January 2010 (2010-01-13) (Belgium and France)
  • 8 July 2010 (2010-07-08) (Germany)
  • 16 July 2010 (2010-07-16) (Canada)
Running time
141 minutes
157 minutes (Director's cut)
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • France
  • Germany
Language English
Budget 33 million

Mr. Nobody is a 2009 science fiction drama film. It was written and directed by Jaco Van Dormael, produced by Philippe Godeau, and starred Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, Linh Dan Pham, Rhys Ifans, Natasha Little, Toby Regbo and Juno Temple. The film tells the life story of Nemo Nobody, a 118-year-old man who is the last mortal on Earth after the human race has achieved quasi-immortality. Nemo, memory fading, refers to his three main loves and to his parents' divorce and subsequent hardships endured at three critical junctions in his life: at age nine, fifteen, and thirty-four. Alternate life paths branching out from each of those critical junctions are examined. The speculative narrative often changes course with the flick of a different possible decision at each of those ages. The film uses nonlinear narrative and the multiverse hypothesis style.

Mr. Nobody had its world premiere at the 66th Venice International Film Festival where it received the Golden Osella and the Biografilm Lancia Award. Critical response was generally strong and the film was nominated for seven Magritte Awards, winning six, including Best Film and Best Director for Van Dormael. The film was mostly funded through European financiers and was released in Belgium on 13 January 2010. Since its original release, Mr. Nobody has become a cult film, noted for its philosophy and cinematography, personal characters and Pierre Van Dormael's soundtrack.[1]


In 2092, humanity has conquered mortality through the endless renewal of cells. The world watches in fascination as the 118-year-old Nemo Nobody, the last mortal on Earth, edges towards death. Curious to know of life before quasi-immortality, they interview Nemo. Dr. Feldheim, a psychiatrist, uses hypnosis to help Nemo recall some of his memories, while Nemo relates other memories to a journalist. As he is prodded, Nemo makes contradictory statements. He recounts his life at three primary points: at age 9, when his parents divorced, at age 15 when he fell in love, and at age 34 as an adult. All three unfold into their many possible outcomes.

Nemo explains that before birth, children remember everything that will happen in their lives. At the moment of conception, the Angels of Oblivion erase their memory. The Angels, however, forget about Nemo, allowing him to "remember" different possible futures for himself. At age 9, at a railway station, he is forced to choose as his mother leaves on a train while his father stays on the platform. In one case, he manages to board the train while in another he stays with his father.

Life with mother

A rebellious Nemo lives with his mother and her new partner, Harry, in Montreal. He sees a new girl, Anna, in his school and is immediately smitten. One day on the beach, Anna asks if he would like to swim with her and her friends. Nemo insults her friends and they barely see each other again.

In an alternate story line, Nemo admits to Anna he cannot swim; the two spend time together and fall in love. Anna turns out to be Harry's daughter and the two step siblings begin an illicit affair. They pledge their lives to one another. When Harry and Nemo's mother break up, Anna goes to New York with her father, and they lose touch. Years later, Nemo works as a pool cleaner, hoping to run into Anna by chance. They finally see one another at the train station and immediately recognize each other in a crowd of passers-by. After a passionate reunion, Anna announces she is not ready to immediately resume the relationship. She gives him her number, asks him to call her in two days and meet at the lighthouse. However, he loses her number when a sudden downpour makes her note illegible. Nemo waits at the lighthouse every day, but Anna does not come.

In a different storyline, Anna and Nemo are married with children. Nemo works at a television studio narrating educational videos. One evening, while returning home, he hits a bird, loses control of his car, plummets into a lake and drowns.

Life with father

Nemo stays with his father, who later becomes disabled. He works in a shop and spends his free time at home at the typewriter, writing a science fiction story about a journey to Mars. At a school dance, he meets Elise and falls in love. A few days later, Nemo goes to Elise's house but sees her with her 22-year-old boyfriend. Frustrated, he speeds away on his motorcycle, has an accident and is hospitalized in a vegetative state. Though he can perceive the world through his senses, Nemo cannot move or speak. He detects his parents' reunion at his bedside. Nemo tries to remember the movement of his fingers on the typewriter keyboard and eventually manages to lift a finger as this story line comes to a close.

In yet another alternate timeline, Nemo speaks with Elise at her house, and learns that she is still in love with her boyfriend, Stefano. Nemo does not back down and keeps assuring her of his feelings. Finally, Elise gives in and a few years later, they get married. In one version of the story line, Elise dies in an accident on the return from the wedding. Nemo keeps her ashes, having promised her to spread them on Mars. In a far future, Nemo carries Elise's ash to Mars and spreads them on the planet's surface. Aboard the spacecraft traveling back to Earth, he meets Anna. Before they can say much to each other, the ship is destroyed by meteoroids. In an alternate version of events, he works at the same television studio but his assistant drowns instead. The assistant's widow is Anna, whom he recognizes. Another storyline has Nemo and Elise married with three children. However, their marriage is unhappy as Elise suffers from borderline personality disorder and chronic depression. She has attacks of hysteria and, despite Nemo's attempts to save their marriage, ultimately leaves him to pursue Stefano.

Alternatively, after being rejected by Elise, Nemo resolves to marry the first girl who will dance with him at the school prom. That night, he dances with Jeanne. While taking her home, Nemo pledges to marry her and be successful. Despite being successful and have two children, Nemo is unhappy and bored with his life. Nemo writes over all his possessions to Jeanne and leaves his family. Now making all of his decisions randomly via coin toss, he goes to the airport, and pretends to be a passenger named Daniel Jones and is taken to a hotel by a waiting chauffeur. At Jones' hotel room, Nemo is murdered while taking a bath, and his body is dumped in the woods.

Running throughout all the many paths his life could take or has taken, the adult Nemo recurringly awakens in a surrealistic world dominated by argyle patterns. This setting seems artificial, like a movie set, and often appears to bleed over into his other lives. Following clues that he finds scattered throughout this city, he ultimately arrives at a crumbling, abandoned wooden-framed house. He stumbles upon a DVD player hooked up to a television screen. In the strangely interactive video, the 118-year-old Nemo converses with the 34-year-old one. He explains that the younger man does not exist. This is a universe where Nemo Nobody was never born, and his consciousness is stuck in some sort of limbo. He states that he is experiencing the story from the end and that he must stay alive until 5:50 AM on 12 February 2092.


Before his death, Mr. Nobody tells the journalist that neither of them exist. They are figments in the mind of the 9-year-old Nemo at the train station, as he was forced to make an impossible choice. The young boy tries to find the correct decision, following each choice to its conclusion. Eventually, the boy takes a third option: to not make the choice at all. He leaves both parents and runs away towards an unknown future. This ambiguous choice somehow leads to him and Anna reuniting happily. The film returns to old Nemo on his death bed. The calculated time arrives and Mr. Nobody's last words are watched by the world. The expansion of the universe comes to a halt and time appears to reverse. The universe ceases to dissipate, and finally begins contracting. Consequently, Nemo's life simplifies itself. He is able to return to his childhood, watch his parents get back together and be with Anna. The 118-year-old man cackles triumphantly as he springs back into awareness with the realization that his younger self has finally found his one true love and life.


The cast at the premiere for the film in September 2009 (left to right): Linh Dan Pham, Sarah Polley, Diane Kruger, and Jared Leto

Director Jaco Van Dormael makes a cameo appearance as the Brazillian man



Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael began seeking to film Mr. Nobody in 2001, an attempt that lasted six years before the director was able to make his English-language feature debut in 2007.[8] Van Dormael's project differed from other Belgian productions in being filmed in English instead of in one of Belgium's main languages. The director explained, "The story came to me in English. It's a story set over very long distances and time frames. One of the strands of the plot is about a kid who must choose between living with his mother in Canada or his father in England. There are also some incredible English-speaking actors I wanted to work with."[9] Mr. Nobody is Van Dormael's first feature film since the Belgian film Le huitième jour (The Eighth Day) in 1996. Van Dormael began preparing production of Mr. Nobody in February 2007 with actress Sarah Polley the first to be cast in the film.[5] Actor Jared Leto was later cast into the primary role of Nemo Nobody.[10]

The production budget for Mr. Nobody was €33 million (US$47 million), ranking it the most expensive Belgian film to date.[11] The budget was approved before casting was done, based on the prominence of the director's name and the strength of his script. Half of the budget was provided by the film's French producer Philippe Godeau through his production company Pan-Européenne, and the other half was financed by distributors Wild Bunch and Pathé.[9] Production took place throughout 2007, lasting 120 days and filming in Belgium, Germany, and Canada. Scenes were filmed on location in Montreal, Canada and at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, Germany.[12] Van Dormael said, "I think the film needed that for these multiple lives. Each time a new style of setting is required. And each life is filmed in a different style, with a different grammar for the camera, the colours, the decor. At the same time, if all the styles have to be very contrasted, they knock together by fusing."[13] The three lives that Nemo Nobody experiences were separated by color-coding and musical cues. Each life's design was also based on the work of British photographer Martin Parr.[14]


The idea of parallel lives has been explored before in films such as Run Lola Run (1998) and Sliding Doors (1998) which influenced Van Dormael's writing. Unlike any of those, Mr. Nobody has philosophical underpinning inspired by scientific tomes on chaos theory and the butterfly effect, pigeon superstition, and the space-time continuum.[14] Van Dormael stated, "My starting point was a 12-minute short I made in 1982 called 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 realised 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. I wanted the gaze of the child on his future to meet the gaze of the old man he has become on his past. I wanted to talk about complexity through cinema, which is a simplifying medium. While reality around us is more and more complex, the information is more and more succinct, political speeches are more and more simplistic. What interests me is complexity. Not the simple answers, which are reassuring but bound to be false."[15]

While producing the film, Van Dormael took the unique step of publishing his screenplay.[13] The director described the scale of the film, "My producers don't like me saying it, but it's really a big-budget experimental film about the many different lives one person can live, depending on the choices he makes. It's about the infinite possibilities facing any person. There are no good or bad choices in life. It's simply that each choice will create another life for you. What's interesting is to be alive."[12]

Visual effects

Jaco Van Dormael hired visual effects supervisor Louis Morin, known for his work in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), to create visual effects for Mr. Nobody.[16] All five hundred visual effects shots were produced in Quebec by Quebec companies. Modus FX announced having delivered 121 digital visual effects shots for the film.[17] The company was entrusted with complex sequences which could not be captured on film, involving the digital reproduction of entire cities, villages and other-worldly settings.[17] Modus FX also worked on several complex transitions between the different worlds and multiple lives of Nemo Nobody.[17] Modus FX's post-production contributions involved 37 digital artists and technicians across a six-month period.[16] A long list of software, including Autodesk's Softimage and Maya, Side Effects' Houdini and The Foundry's Nuke, and the creation of a multitude of in-house tools, programs and techniques was required for the shots delivered.[16]


Like Jaco Van Dormael's previous films, the score for Mr. Nobody was written by Pierre Van Dormael. He worked on simple themes and out of synch loops, "a mixture of superficial simplicity and underlying complexity."[18] He wrote themes that overlapped to form new ones, each theme continuing to exist while being mixed with the others. The director did not want the music to be overtly emotional, so he and Pierre chose a minimalist orchestration, more often than not just a single guitar. Jaco said, "We wanted the instrument and the player to be felt. This stance actually sums up the whole adventure: a maximalist project with a minimalist approach."[18] Mr. Nobody is the last film of composer Pierre Van Dormael before his death in 2008.[19] His music won the Magritte Award for Best Original Score in 2012.[20]

The soundtrack features songs by Pierre Van Dormael, Buddy Holly, Hans Zimmer, Otis Redding, Eurythmics, Pixies, Wallace Collection, Nena, Ella Fitzgerald, and The Andrew Sisters, as well as versions of "Mr. Sandman" performed by The Chordettes, The King Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and Gob, and recordings of compositions by Erik Satie and Benjamin Britten, among others.[21]


Nemo's possible future wives: Jeanne, Elise and Anna

Mr. Nobody is a tale about choice. Nemo, a nine-year-old boy, has been thrust into a position where he must make an impossible decision – to choose between his mother and father. In the seconds preceding the rest of his life, he wonders where each choice will take him. The forces of the universe working to bring about total chaos are counteracted by this boy's overactive imagination.[22] The dilemma that causes the film's main problem (not knowing the future) once solved makes it all the more difficult – "I don't know the future, therefore I cannot make a decision. Now that I know the future I still cannot make one."[22] The eloquent interplay between philosophical lifestyle and what forges reality, is epitomized by the constant change in storyline, between young boy, adolescent man, and mature man. The film takes a four-dimensionalists view of the nature and existence of life in the universe.[23] Each decision thus branching off creating an entirely separate alternative universe. Mr. Nobody raises many ontological arguments about the subjective nature of time.[24] How actions have universal consequences, how the past inevitably shapes the future in a very impacting way – every single choice, no matter its simplicity or complexity can make, alter or change a lifetime.[25]

The film also makes substantial use of chaos theory, string theory, and the butterfly effect to accentuate the lack of control that humanity as individuals possesses.[26] Often at each stage of his life there is a scene where Nemo is subject to the whims of chance, often plunging into water, a place where humans lack all control. This is a visual symbol of the powerlessness attributed to the human condition.[27] The theories are used to compound reality in the film, it is why the smoke never goes back into the cigarette, time is always moving in one direction. At the end when it assumes that the universe is on the precipice of ultimate chaos, making use of the Big Crunch theory, time halts, and it begins to reverse.[28] Thus signalling the absolute freedom Nemo had been seeking – being able to live a life without choice, for while you never choose all things remain possible.[29] The tale of Nemo Nobody reflects a life of choices, whether or not we made the correct choice and what would happen if we could go back and change them. In the reveal Mr. Nobody age 118 states that it doesn't matter what we choose, because each choice, once made has just as much significance as any alternate choice.[30] The film portrays a life where we are all subject to chance, to the dimensions by which we construct our reality (height, length, width and time), and to the imagination of our former selves. And once the boy Nemo knows the outcomes of either choice, he instinctively opts for another.[31]

The different colors used in the film have symbolic meanings. Each of the three main storylines has its own unique hue that highlights their originality and unlikeness to each other. Color differentiation can be traced as far back as Nemo's childhood, where three girls sit on a bench. They are his possible future wives: Jeanne, Elise, and Anna; one in yellow, the other in blue, and the third in a red dress. In his life with Elise, Nemo experiences the consequences of depression and despair, themes associated with the color blue.[32] Choosing Jeanne, Nemo seeks material well-being and independence: yellow – the color of life and wealth – emphasizes this.[33] The true love and passionate relationship between Nemo and Anna is symbolized by the red color of Anna's dress.[34] It is noteworthy that the unborn Nemo is shown living in a white world. White contains all colors of the visible spectrum; this supports the allegorical message of the film that all things are possible until a choice is made.[35] By the end of his life, Nemo is a decrepit old man and lives in a white surrounding (room, clothes, doctor). This way we can see that the fate of the protagonist leads him back to the origins from where he started, the point at which everything is possible.[31]


Theatrical run

Jaco Van Dormael and the crew at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

An earlier, longer, work-in-progress version of the film was rejected for competition by the Cannes Film Festival, which offered that cut of Mr. Nobody an out-of-competition berth. Producer Philippe Godeau turned that down.[36] The decision by the Cannes Film Festival not to exhibit the film created a national controversy.[37] Eventually, the studio held the film's world premiere at the 66th Venice International Film Festival on 12 September 2009.[38] Six days later, Mr. Nobody screened as a special presentation during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival.[39] Additionally, the film was screened at the Sitges Film Festival and the Stockholm International Film Festival before its theatrical release.[40][41] Mr. Nobody had its American premiere on 25 June 2011, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, nearly two years since its original debut.[42] It was among more than 200 feature films, short projects, and music videos, from more than 30 countries, to be shown at the festival. The Consul General of Belgium, Geert Criel, held a second United States screening of Mr. Nobody on 21 December 2011, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.[43]

Mr. Nobody initially opened in 36 theaters in Belgium in its opening weekend and grossed USD $227,917, placing fourth and posting a per-theater average of $6,331.[44] Over the second weekend, the film dropped 21.9% in revenue, earning $178,098.[45] Grossing nearly $1 million, it became one of the ten highest-grossing 2010 films in Belgium.[46] The film was released in France on 13 January 2010, opening in 150 theaters and had a disappointing opening weekend due to the mixed response from French critics.[47] It finished eighth on its first weekend of release earning $640,517, and by its second weekend of release had dropped to the bottom of the top ten with a total of $1,051,211.[48][49] Magnolia Pictures released the film in the United States in select theaters on 1 November 2013.[50]

Home media

Mr. Nobody was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc in France on 21 July 2010, through Pathé, in two formats: a single-disc wide-screen version which special features include a trailer, making-of and a photo gallery; and a two-disc wide-screen special edition.[51][52] The latter contains the director's cut of the film which has 1 re-cut, 23 extended scenes and 12 additional scenes integrated into the original footage, running about 16 minutes longer than the theatrical version.[53] The Warner Home Video Dutch release includes new specials features: interactive menu, scene access, a making-of, a behind the scenes, deleted scenes and a photo gallery.[54] On 11 January 2011, it was released in Canada through Entertainment One on DVD and Blu-ray Disc, with a making-of featurette, behind the scenes footage and deleted scenes.[55] Optimum Home Entertainment released Mr. Nobody to the British market on DVD and Blu-ray Disc on 12 September 2011, with few special features.[56] It contains a making-of with Leto interview and a trailer of the film.[57]

Critical reception

Director Jaco Van Dormael along with actors Sarah Polley, Jared Leto, Linh Dan Pham, and Diane Kruger at the 66th Venice International Film Festival

Upon its premiere at the 66th Venice International Film Festival, Mr. Nobody was positively received with a ten-minute standing ovation from the audience.[58] The film garnered a 64% approval rating from 28 critics—a weighted average rating of 6.6 out of 10—on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, with its consensus saying, "Mr. Nobodys narrative tangles may bedevil as much as they entertain, but its big ambitions and absorbing visuals make for an intriguing addition to director Jaco Van Dormael's filmography."[59] At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film received a score of 63, based on 10 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[60]

Jennie Punter of The Globe and Mail praised the film, stating "Van Dormael holds this fractured fairy tale together by giving it an emotional core and delivers two hours of time travel with a playful spirit and at a mostly hyperkinetic pace, sprinkling it with amusing side journeys and sometimes letting a scene unfold at a more natural tempo."[61] Bruce Kirkland of Jam! gave the film four stars out of five and wrote, "Expect the unexpected. Try to answer the unanswerable question that writer-director Van Dormael poses. It is a worthwhile exercise." He also described Leto's acting as a "marvelously full-blooded, brain-spinning, tour-de-force performance."[62] Ken Eisner from The Georgia Straight summarized the film as "a dazzling feat of philosophical fancy, and it attempts nothing less than the summing up of an entire life, and an epoch or two, with its free-spinning take on recent human history as projected into possible futures."[63]

Niels Matthijs, writing for Twitch Film, stated that "It's astounding how van Dormael turns each scene into a unique little cinematic event. There is hardly filler here, no scenes to drag out the running time or to fill some gaps in between other climaxes. Every scene matters and every scene is made to look like it matters. The director uses all means to his disposal to keep the viewer engaged and interested in the life of the main protagonist, Nemo Nobody."[64] Fred Topel, writing for Screen Junkies, praised the film's artistry, saying "All of Nemo's lives are painful. No matter what he chooses, he experiences heartbreak, death of loved ones, his own death, and clinical depression. My future seems brighter, but the film makes the strong point that every experience is worthwhile. The goal isn't to choose the easiest path. It's to live."[65] Chris Holt from Starburst magazine wrote that "Mr. Nobody is a film that is remarkable by its very existence and that in itself is something to be happy about. You may love it you may hate it, but you can bet that you will never forget it."[66] Exclaim!'s Robert Bell called the film "a powerful movie about what it means to be alive."[67]

Boyd van Hoeij of Variety magazine was more critical, writing "Though a lot of it is well written and directed and, quite often, funny or poignant, the individual scenes rarely become part of a larger whole." He praises Leto's acting, stating "The closest the film comes to having a gravitational center are in the scenes set in 2092. What makes them soar is not the imaginative staging of the future, but Leto's performance. His acting talent really comes into full view in his scenes as the last dying man on Earth." He also praised Regbo and Temple, saying "Regbo, as the teenage Nemo, and Juno Temple, as the teenage Anna, are impressive, bringing the hormonal battles of adolescence vividly to life."[68] Film critic Eric Lavallée listed Regbo as one of his "Top 10 New Faces & Voices" of 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. He notes that "newbie Toby Regbo might easily be Mr. Nobody's most "alive" character. Playing Nemo at age 16, the actor is mostly paired with Juno Temple – their unique love story is the film's heart pumping portions and plays a lot better than the artery clogging other brushes of romance."[69]

AlloCiné, a French cinema website, gave the film an average of three out of five stars, based on a survey of 24 reviews.[70] Xavier Leherpeur from Le Nouvel Observateur described it as "a fiction of sterile ramifications, weighed down by a script the labyrinthine constructions of which poorly conceal the poverty of inspiration".[71] Pierre Fornerod from Ouest-France wrote that "Van Dormael plays with chance and coincidence. The demonstration is long and heavy, but aesthetically, is superb."[72]


Mr. Nobody was nominated for and won multiple awards from numerous film organizations and festivals. It was nominated for seven Magritte Awards and was awarded six at the 1st Magritte Awards: Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay for Jaco Van Dormael, Best Cinematography for Christophe Beaucarne, Best Original Score for Pierre Van Dormael, and Best Editing for Matyas Veress.[73] Emmanuel de Boissieu, Frédéric Demolder and Dominique Warnier lost the award for Best Sound to A Town Called Panic. In addition, the film was named Best Film of 2010 by the Belgian Film Critics Association winning the André Cavens Award, and was awarded Best Film at the 2010 Fonske Awards.[74][75] It also received the People's Choice Award for Best European Film at the 23rd European Film Awards, and won the Audience Award at the Biografilm Festival.[76][77]

At the 66th Venice International Film Festival, Sylvie Olivé was awarded the Golden Osella for Outstanding Technical Contribution and the film received the Biografilm Lancia Award.[78][79] It was also nominated for the Golden Lion but lost to Lebanon. Jared Leto was nominated for the Volpi Cup for Best Actor.[80] Christophe Beaucarne received Best Cinematography at the 20th Stockholm International Film Festival and Kaatje Van Damme won Best Makeup at the 42nd Sitges Film Festival.[81][82] Mr. Nobody has appeared on many critics top ten lists of 2010 and is frequently considered to be one of the greatest films of the year.[83] Kurt Halfyard, a film critic for Twitch Film, listed Van Dormael's film among the best science fiction films of the 21st century.[84] The American Film Institute listed Mr. Nobody as one of the best European films of 2010.[85]


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Further reading

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