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TIFF 09 Review: Mr Nobody

TIFF 09 Review: Mr Nobody
by Andrew James

One of the oddest, most thoughtful and certainly ambitious film screening at this year’s Toronto Film Festival is certainly Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody. But this is also one of the most intelligent scripts I’ve yet to see this year. Mixing hard science fact, hypothesis and theories with classic philosophy and drama, Mr. Nobody dives into all manner of possibilities wrapped around quite an enigmatic tale of love, choice and opportunities seized and lost.

To attempt a synopsis in under 1000 words seems almost futile, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. The film starts in the future of 2092. The oldest man in the world, Nemo Nobody, has captured the attention of the world as the last man that will ever die of old age since automatic cell regeneration has been achieved. Nemo sits in a hospital of sorts and recounts his life first to a sort of doctor/hypnotist, then later to a journalist. The tale weaved starts before Nemo’s birth as he tells the process a soul goes through before choosing its parents.

The story then moves through adolescence and into manhood but in a nonlinear fashion. We see several versions of Nemo’s life had he made one choice over another and we move back and forth in time to get different perspectives of different events and indeed different and sometimes intersecting lifetimes. As I said, not the easiest of plots to explain in words, but if you were to combine Abre los Ojos (Vanilla Sky) with Gwynneth Paltrow’s Sliding Doors, you have a rough idea the style in which the narrative is told. Add some elements and the influence of such films as Slaughterhouse 5, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the warm hearted drama and tone of Amélie (just to name a few) into the mix and you understand the ambitiousness that the film strives for. Unbelievably, it succeeds beyond expectations and then some!

Without at least a second viewing it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around everything that is going on here. Essentially the story looks at the randomness of the universe and the possibilities of the butterfly effect. Can a person influence or even directly change the outcome of future events simply by not making choices? An actual impossibility of course to not choose, but maybe one can stay as emotionally safe as possible simply by not choosing a particular path over another. Adding in the effect of time and how time is perceived along with a look at the possibilities of other dimensions, both spatial and temporal, not only enhances the possibilities of the narrative, but also keeps the viewer always thinking, imagining and dreaming.

Most breathtaking is the magical camera work on display. All sorts of tricks are employed to easily and seamlessly segue from one moment in time to the next and from one character and his or her locale to the next. The fantastic use of space and movement almost defies belief as to where the camera takes the viewer.

We move in and out of paintings, photos, drawings and even letters to bring us where we need to be to make sense of the situation. Surreal, yet spectacular effects and ideas challenge our perceptions of locales and situations. The mixing of both plastic models and real world within the same shot add to the imaginative feel to the inner workings of our character’s minds and thoughts. As a single example from where there could be many, watching construction helicopters lift huge cubes of water directly out of a lake and carry them across a futuristic city leaving only perfectly geometrically shaped holes in the water is jaw-dropping. And at no time do any of these scenarios appear shoddy. The camera work is exquisite and blends reality and fantasy with precision and sharpness.

Beyond the use of top notch camera work and the infusion of imagination so perfectly within this created reality, there is also perfectly timed and obvious pain-staking editing prowess at work all throughout this picture. The juxtaposition and melding of not only seamless temporal transitions, but also time-lapse and reverse time photography, along with staggered freeze-frames makes for the utmost at infusing thematic and cinematic texture to the story. On top of this, the use of metaphorical imagery throughout is, while maybe obvious, gorgeous and stunning and interwoven within the story quite nicely. The inner workings of a giant clock or the speed of railroad tracks crossing and merging for example is seamlessly tied into the visual drama. And to be frank, just keeping the various threads of the story cohesive and lacking in confusion is a realized miracle in and of itself.

While a director like Oliver Stone’s use of these techniques is often just used to add artful imagery and can sometimes feel out of place or inserted strictly just to appear “artsy” (which is fine in many cases), with Mr. Nobody, nothing is done without reason. Each instance of watching the characters physically moving backwards in time or seem to appear to stop moving altogether is integral to the story’s focus and ultimately a clue as to what is really going on within the narrative. Every bit of technique utilized by the film maker is essential and well planned from the get-go to achieve what the story sets out to accomplish.

And while all of this might sound as though it will appear rushed, chaotic or frantic, nothing could be further from the truth. The transitions are smooth and elegant. The story and on screen movement flows effortlessly despite the apparently convoluted and unconventional structure of the narrative and its character’s actions.

At the conclusion of the film, the performances within almost seem like an afterthought compared to the physical and metaphysical beauty of Mr. Nobody. However, I do believe I’ve not seen such a charismatic or headstrong performance from the likes of Sarah Polley in anything previous to this film. While she actually has very little screen time, her character is strong and interesting, if a bit unhinged and melancholy. Singling out Polley is easy but to be fair, pretty much every performance in Mr. Nobody is fantastic. More screen time could’ve been given to any one of the leading ladies and it would only help the film. Jared Leto takes on this leading role with the strength and courage that not just anyone could have – including some A-listers that come to mind. Also look for some of these teen actors to start appearing in more films (hopefully). They really help tie the proverbial room together and are the glue that keeps their particular story threads believable and tight.

The special effects used in the movie are flawless. Yes, there is a trip to the stars within the movie and extra-terrestrial planets and the vessels that take our characters to them look 100% photo realistic. The gorgeous look of recent films such as Sunshine or Mission to Mars don’t hold anything over the head of Mr. Nobody. Truly this is a sci-fi epic that can hold its own against the main stream big boys in terms of visual prowess. Gorgeous with a capital “G” throughout.

Clocking in at just under 150 minutes, some may argue that the film could stand a snip or a tuck here or there to keep it tighter; but for myself, I could’ve sat at attention for much longer with just as much anticipation, enjoyment and wide-eyed as the first two hours. Yes, this is a film that might be tough to wrap your head around or difficult to comprehend all that is happening and why upon a first viewing, but the movie is never confusing. We always know where we are, what we’re dealing with and with whom. The movie just flows thematically, visually and even narratively (despite being all over the place in time and space) like a carefully winding stream. The entire feel of the movie is joyously mesmerizing and concludes with a better ending I cannot imagine. I have waited all year for this and it has finally come: my first 5/5 star film of the year. Rejoice.


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