Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael; Runtime: 157 minutes
Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael covers a daunting amount of territory in his existential epic, Mr. Nobody: alternate timelines, the power of choice, the butterfly effect, the Big Crunch, even immortality and reincarnation emerge to an extent. Told from the perspective of an old man, Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), who's recalling his life -- or lives -- in the final days of his existence, he paints a vivid, multihued portrait of how these ideas and circumstances impact the very fabric of possibility, filling nearly two and a half hours with prolific imagery and diverse human drama that branches into a complex network of thoughts. As mesmerizing as the film can be while following and interpreting its narrative strands, there's also a frantic, perplexing quality to this web of would-be realities Van Dormael sets in motion, where inventive filmmaking both helps and hinders the film as it proposes a question -- "Who's Nemo Nobody?" -- that it calculatedly avoids answering by jumping through temporal hoops.
A bizarre presentation of the year 2092 sets the stage for the old man's telling: in an future where he's the last mortal alive due to biological breakthroughs, where everyone has a pet pig and trips to the moon are liberally advertised, doctors try to push through the 118-year-old's misguided thoughts about only being 34 by coaxing memories from his subconscious. As media attention builds around Nemo's death and a fledgling journalist (Daniel Mays) finds his way into the old man's room for an interview, we're introduced to the many abstractions of what Nemo Nobody's life may have been, built around three potential mates -- Anna (Diane Kruger), Elise (Sarah Polley), or Jean (Linh Dan Pham) -- and discovering which of his identities actually encapsulates this final mortal person. From there, Mr. Nobody illustrates how Nemo's life parses in different directions due to the decisions he's made: whom he chooses for his parents, whether he runs towards his mother (Natasha Little) or father (Rhys Ifans) when they divorce after a tragedy, and how he handles the initial rejections and missed dialogue opportunities with two of his possible wives.
With one variation of Nemo intermittently "narrating" the science and mystery of the universe through a fourth-wall-breaking educational television program, Jaco Van Dormael ambitiously fleshes out many of these possible timelines, some which abruptly end in terrible consequences and others that extend until Nemo Nobody has turned 34, either with a wife and kids or lamenting the tragedies that prevented it form happening. The film's focus on the nature of choice and the effects of either seemingly insignificant or momentous deviations -- the weather, a single sentence, the decision between mother and father -- build upon a theoretical foundation that explores the universe's chaotic grasp on cause and effect, as if life were a pinball machine impacted by even the most minuscule missteps in paddling the ball. Mr. Nobody can also be scattered and detached as a result of its many shifts in time, deliberately so since we're only given fleeting opportunities to embrace what's under the surface of most of these versions of Nemo. Impatience and unfulfilled curiosity take hold of the film's convoluted obscurity, becoming a challenge when realities dead-end and rewind for effect.
Jaco Van Dormael knows what he's doing with the byzantine composition and symbolism in Mr. Nobody, though, where much of the story's philosophical intentions come through in recurring motifs and hypnotic images, both digital and practical through Christophe Beaucarne's beautiful cinematography. Considering how often aesthetics provoke the audience across the film, from shattering vases and contrasting bedroom decors to the raw emotion in wide eyes, it's quite a feat for practically none of it to feel pretentious or lack pertinence towards the story Dormael wants to tell; when an abstract scene of bicycles floating around Mars makes its relevance clearly known, you know the director's on to something. Mr. Nobody's visuals can be incredibly effective at provoking emotional responses too, even if their overarching purpose becomes tough to follow as Nemo's realities start to criss-cross. It's an entrancing piece of conceptual art cut from the same cloth as The Fountain and/or Cloud Atlas, even if its purposes appear scattered when studied from the outside looking in (a criticism justly attributed to those films, too, but to a lesser degree).
There's so much soul-crushing drama built around each of Nemo's existences and relationships -- a teary wife and mother anchored by depression, a romance between step-brother and step-sister, earth-shattering car accidents and the coldness born from abundant wealth -- that it grows difficult not to look at Mr. Nobody as a willful detachment from reality and a flight of imagination, intentional or not. Jaco Van Dormael aims for high-concept, melancholy divergences in the universe's grand design instead of authentic aftereffects, and while it's not without embraceable sentiment as Nemo wrestles with life's complexities, one can't help but wonder why each of his existences appear doomed. With that said, several of Nemo's possible scenarios pack enough of a dramatic punch that they resonate anyway, despite some stilted dialogue: Sarah Polley handles the debilitating nature of depression with a deft hand, while Reign's Toby Regbo and the ever-talented Juno Temple shape young, forbidden love into something truly heartbreaking. More importantly, Jared Leto's shifts as the many faces of Nemo, each similarly doting yet melancholy in their own ways, can be subtly engaging despite the arm's length we're kept from his deeper personas.
With the abundant theoretical and dramatic strands at Jaco Van Dormael's fingertips, it's no surprise that Mr. Nobody can't resolve the big picture with its only semi-coherent ending, operating on subtle implications and interpretations around the existence of the old man. While it may be a conceptual stretch to make raindrops, fallen leaves, and overwrought sprints towards departing trains to be the culprits of these events, it does provoke thoughts about the many decisions people make and the many instances of happenstance that alter their trajectory, and how two versions of a person's life exist in those very moments. Where those cerebral contemplations ultimately lead becomes inconsequential: it's not interested in commenting on regret over decisions not made, or the nihilism built around the lack of control over fate. Instead, Van Dormael entrancingly covers the ground he intended to cover about Nobody's existence and ends with a puzzling cackle, still jumping through hoops and offering little concrete grasp on the appropriately-named man of the hour.
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee; Runtime: 120 minutes
Whether or not a film ultimately needs to back up its dramatic integrity with the culmination of the story's foreshadowing and premise -- basically, whether the journey is more important than the destination -- gets put to the test in Jean-Marc Vallee's Cafe de Flore. On one hand, the director of recent Oscar nominees Dallas Buyers Club and The Young Victoria has assembled a mesmerizing and poetic piece of work about raising children, divorce, and music's resonance across time, chronicling two divergent sets of lives that take place fifty years apart. On the other hand, it's also a blurred abstraction that builds expectations toward the eventual discovery of how they do, in fact, relate: what a successful DJ and father of two embroiled in divorce shares in common with a doting mother raising a child with Down syndrome in '60s Paris. The outlandish connection at the heart of Cafe de Flore is, unfortunately, far less convincing than the powerful character drama that precedes it.
The film's title comes from a piece of music that permeates throughout the story, notably an important part of the everyday routine of Laurent (Marin Gerrier), a disabled boy lovingly raised by Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) to be as healthy and high-functioning as possible. Her oath to go above and beyond in her parenting also comes with a degree of protectiveness and control for her son, along with an almost-complete sacrifice of her personal life. Through juxtaposition of the storylines, we're introduced to the idea that Jacqueline and Laurent might somehow factor into the lives of Antoine (Kevin Parent) and Carole (Helene Florent) in modern-era Canada, whose twenty-year relationship abruptly fell apart once curly-haired beauty Rose (Evelyne Brochu) entered Antoine's life. Together with her children's frustration toward their father, Carole cannot reach a point where she's able to let go of her husband. Direct connections between these two stories appear nonexistent; however, Carole finds herself fascinated by dreams of Paris and a young disabled boy.
Cafe de Flore shifts between time periods in ways reinforced by Jean-Marc Vallee's graceful eye for aesthetics, making the transitions visually engrossing as they further hint towards a conflagration point. The material set during '60s Paris is underscored by dark, rich tans and blues for a vintage effect, allowing the constant movement of Pierre Cottereau's cinematography to relish small details like the stacked chairs and a downhill stream of rainwater that adorn Laurent's walks to school. Expectedly, the modern-era sequences focus on lucidity and vibrant tones that keeps camera motion to a minimum, focusing on close-ups and expressions as Antoine falls for Rose and reacts to Carole and his daughters. Music also becomes more prominent in the contemporary sequences, used both to express passion and provocation as a backdrop to the thriving DJ's personal life; it's easy to appreciate Jean-Marc Vallee's extended usage of Sigur Ros' haunting, ethereal track Svefn-G-Englar as a way of accentuating Antoine's soul-stirring transition.
Taken separately, the sides of Cafe de Flore's story are comprised of nuanced glimpses at two very different lives built on disparate conflicts, connected only by faintly similar themes about the pitfalls of parenting and coming to grips with an inability to control others. Jean-Marc Vallee's grasp on the difficulties and joys of raising a child with special needs is to be commended: Vanessa Paradis displays a quietly turbulent, profound rendering of Laurent's mother, accentuating highs and lows through the writing's excellent grasp on how she gets her son through bullying and an attachment to a fellow student, Vero, who also has Down syndrome. The film also understands the passive-aggressive complexity of coping with marital separation during the current era, along with the disappointment expressed by family members about the selfish decisions made around divorce and new loves. Jean-Marc Vallee's script expresses its points without a black-and-white grasp on principles, whether it's about parenting, substance abuse, or making decisions about relationships.
That's why it's frustrating to see Cafe de Flore suffer such a narrative blow once it divulges the connection between the past and the present, a vexing and heavy-handed twist designed to tickle the fancy of new-age mystics in search of the next Mr. Nobody or Cloud Atlas. The substance generated in Vallee's two intimately challenging stories must shoulder the burden of a plot revelation -- one only tangentially foreshadowed -- that's hinged on an unruly manifestation of spirituality, destiny, and recompense. While the ideas at the heart of this abstraction can be gratifying in a different context, the film ultimately relies too heavily on them as a surprise emotional lynchpin for its final act, retroactively changing one's perception of everything prior. It's tempting to overlook the last thirty minutes and simply appreciate what Jean-Marc Vallee expresses in his journey about parenthood and the complexities of discovering a new soulmate amid divorce, but its sloppy philosophical tune becomes tough to shake while approaching the film's destination that aims to bring it all together.
Directed by: Bille August; Runtime: 118 minutes
On the way to teach a language class, Swiss professor and introverted bookworm Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) happens upon a woman in a eye-catching red coat standing along the railing of a bridge, readying herself to jump. After being rescued by Raimund and enigmatically disappearing, she mistakenly leaves her coat with the teacher, where he discovers a book in one of the pockets while searching for identification. Inside, along with a train ticket departing soon, lies an address that points to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Thus begins Raimund's adventure in the lethargic and motorized Night Train to Lisbon, Bille August's adaptation of Pascal Mercier's novel of the same name, where his propulsion to learn more about the woman and her fascinating book opens the door to discovering more about the author, Amadeu do Prado (Jack Huston), and his participation with the Portuguese resistance in the '70s.
From the moment Raimund flips open the book and spots his first clue, there's a mechanical ease to the chain of events in Night Train to Lisbon's modern timeline, where plot devices -- tickets, broken glasses, packages of cigarettes -- conveniently guide the teacher on his journey. Director August's makes the modern-day era feel stale and archaic as a result, like a dime-novel detective story without the immediacy of a real mystery to solve, especially once Raimund completely shifts his attention from the woman in the red coat to Amadeu's life as a doctor and writer. It's intended to be a time of reawakening and day-seizing for the professor, a break from his sleepless nights of playing chess and exploring literature, yet it's difficult to discern why this gets his heart racing, why the girl he saved and the mystery author are worth abandoning his responsibilities, instead of, say, dabbling in his research between classes.
Those questions and philosophical ponderings stirring in Raimund's mind after reading the novel bear the weight of the issues in Night Train to Lisbon, where the ideas communicated by Amadeu do Prado's book only intermittently surface for us to understand how they propel the newly-enraptured scholar. It's peculiar to see how much of Jeremy Irons' inherent, bristly charisma gets trapped under the professor's subdued persona as he ricochets between individuals from Amadeu's past -- his relatives and acquaintances in the Portuguese resistance -- building to largely mundane conversations designed for a deliberate slow-release of information that feeds into Raimund's muted soul-searching. A sole exception comes in his happenstance relationship with an optometrist, Mariana (Martina Gedeck), who coaxes those inner sensations to the surface, bringing literal and figurative clarity to Raimund as they turn philosophy into flirtation.
The other side of Night Train to Lisbon comes the historical accounts revealed by those involved in Amadeu's life, judiciously fragmented and revisited across the film as more information comes to light. While this structure serves a purpose by effortlessly filling in gaps as Raimund discovers more through alternate perspectives, it thoroughly depletes the film of urgency, making Amadeu's draw towards the Resistance less profound than it should be. Even intense moments, from body trauma to mob-mentality threats, lose their edge in this low-key jigsaw puzzle of sepia-colored recounts. The shuffle of memories, finally revealing a woman, Estefania (Melanie Laurent), who complicates his involvement, fit together into a nondescript and lethargic portrait of political inspiration and idealistic breakthroughs, working against Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston and Inglourious Basterds' August Diehl as they cunningly simmer in their roles as enlightened friends who becomes comrades for the cause.
Through unpretentiously beautiful cinematography capturing Portugal's atmosphere, Night Train to Lisbon constructs this story within a story that fascinates Raimund yet isn't very fascinating to watch unfold, despite its historical context and eventual shift towards the melancholy of impossible relationships. Quietly potent performances from Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) and Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire) enhance the transitions between past and present without truly enlivening the scenarios built around them, while Melanie Laurent's delicate, magnetic presence almost goes to waste amidst a wholly superfluous love triangle. That leaves only the discoveries Raimund has at the end of his journey -- about the girl in the red coat and the outcome of Amadeu's affection, immaculately played by Lena Olin (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) as the aged iteration of Estefania -- to underscore some sort of catharsis and inspiration for his midlife trip away from the confines of his classrooms. It's a drawn-out and snoozy ride to get him there, but at least this fixated professor gets the chance to rebel against his comfort zone in his own way.