Tag Archives: sarah polley

Mr. Nobody Traverses Multiple Timelines

Mr. Nobody (2009), directed by Jaco Van Dormael, is a long (140 minutes), ambitious, fascinating and sometimes confusing film that is both highly original and reminiscent of a few other experimental films of recent years. Whereas many movies deal with the question of decisions and how they impact our fates, none does so in a way that’s more thorough and deep than Mr. Nobody.

The film starts off with a premise that’s quite perplexing, even by the standards of science fiction. The protagonist, whose actual name is unknown, is an apparently confused 117 year old man who is publicly recognized as the last mortal human, in an age when medical advances in stem cell technology have conquered death. This brings up the question of why this man has been singled out for this fate and how, if he’s unknown, they even know how old he is. The film may or may not answer these questions satisfactorily.

The film then focuses on flashbacks, dreams and/or hallucinations that Mr. Nobody has about his past, where he experienced (or imagined) several mutually irreconcilable lives. Not only was he simultaneously married to different women, in certain “lifetimes” he actually died at a young age. We are first taken back to his childhood, where he is compelled to choose between his parents when they split up. The pivotal moment is when his mother is riding away on a train and the boy chases the train and either does or doesn’t -or, rather, does and doesn’t- catch up to it. From this point onwards, the boy’s life starts to branch off into different timelines.

Fans of fantasy, science fiction, and even certain alternative news and conspiracy websites, will be familiar with the concept of timelines. This is also related to possible worlds theory in the realms of academic philosophy and quantum physics. The premise is that every possible reality actually exists in some dimension. Yet Mr. Nobody isn’t content to “merely” examine the notion of timelines. It takes us even further afield, invoking the Butterfly Effect, a future when humans visit Mars and, as alluded to, the technological defeat of death itself. If that wasn’t enough, there is even a sequence with angels and a unicorn, to portray the alleged moment before babies are born and choose their parents.

What can we make of such a complex and seemingly over-ambitious film? I actually found it more enjoyable and accessible than this summary probably indicates. While it is overly complex, convoluted and, ultimately, indecipherable, it is also thought-provoking and philosophical. It also manages to avoid being overly dry and cerebral. Indie actress and director Sarah Polley, plays Elise, a bipolar (or perhaps borderline personality) love interest of Mr. Nobody, and one of the women he marries. Their tumultuous relationship is one of the factors that gives the film some emotional weight. His other two wives are also aptly portrayed by Diane Kruger and Linh Dan Pham.

The film it most closely resembles is the better known Cloud Atlas (2012), which, at 172 minutes was even longer, had the advantage of some big name stars such as Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry. Both movies deal with long periods of time and individuals living out multiple lifetimes. Although Cloud Atlas, which was based on a book, got more attention and, in general, better reviews, I actually preferred Mr. Nobody. I found Cloud Atlas overly long and somewhat sanctimonious. Mr. Nobody, despite what could be called its flaws (but which I’m more inclined to simply call its style), was more an open-ended exploration of some fantastical (but not implausible) theories and possibilities. For what it’s worth, both Cloud Atlas and Mr. Nobody envision a future where guys with intricate face tattoos are prevalent.

Other films that Mr. Nobody can be compared to include Richard Linklater’s exploration of lucid dreaming (among many other things), Waking Life, the reverse aging saga, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and a number of David Lynch films that deal with issues such as multiple identities. Finally, anyone who saw the quasi-documentary What the Bleep do We Know? will recognize the rather farfetched interpretations of quantum physics, such as multiple dimensions.

Mr. Nobody combines philosophy, science fiction and drama in a way that is difficult to reconcile. It’s probably better if you just watch it without trying to understand exactly what it’s all supposed to mean. If nothing else, you should take away from it that life is more complicated and multifaceted than most of us realize most of the time.

Take This Waltz: Complex Toronto Love Triangle

Take This Waltz (2011), directed by Sarah Polley, is a good example of the type of character and dialogue driven independent film that is too nuanced and slow paced for the average movie audience. It stars Michelle Williams as Margot, a young married woman who very tentatively slips into an affair with her neighbor Daniel, played by Luke Kirby.

Take This Waltz has certain contrivances and affectations that will alienate certain viewers as well as critics. The way that Margot and Daniel meet, for example, is more than a little farfetched. Not knowing that they live within a stone’s throw from one another in Toronto, they just happen to meet at an obscure historical reenactment event in Novia Scotia. They also happen to be sitting next to one another on the plane ride home.

What I admired about the film was the way it did not make Margot’s choice between Daniel and her husband Lou (Seth Rogen) easy. Both men are portrayed as decent people who truly care bout Margot. Everything about the film is ambiguous and fluctuating. While some people may find this disturbing, this is actually more like real life (though the film can hardly be considered realistic in other ways).

Margot and Lou have an odd but believable relationship that contains lots of teasing and flirting alternating with hostility. While Margot seems restless and not particularly happy, we sense that this is something intrinsic to her and not really Lou’s fault. Lou’s sister Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) adds a dimension to the movie. She is a recovering alcoholic who is almost as outspoken and unpredictable as Silverman is in real life.

As played by Williams, Margot is revealed as a fascinating yet frustrating character. Her facial expressions are constantly shifting between smiles and frowns and she conveys sense of being confused and adrift. While we can sympathize with her actions as she spends more and more time with Daniel, we can also sense that it will be hard for things to end well for anyone involved. All of the performances in Take This Waltz are excellent, and the script keeps us completely uncertain about the future for these characters.

One of the things that I found a little irritating about the film is that it inhabits a kind of indie film fantasy world where ordinary factors such as economics barely apply. Everyone seems to live in near luxurious circumstances despite the fact that no one has a real job. Margot is a writer who confesses that she hardly ever writes. Lou is a writer of cookbooks who spends the day experimenting with recipes. Indeed, one of Margot’s complaints is that he’s always cooking chicken.

Although late in the film it is revealed that one of his books becomes a big success, this doesn’t explain how they maintain a spacious apartment in a fashionable neighborhood up till that point. Daniel is a rickshaw operator who seems to always be free during the day to pursue Margot. Towards the end of the film, we see a montage sequence where two of the characters are living in a vast loft that looks like something out of Architectural Digest.

These issues don’t directly lessen our enjoyment of the film, but they do undercut its credibility in a subtle way. Take This Waltz is certainly not the only movie that is guilty of this, of course. It seems that many filmmakers feel that audiences want to be reassured that all of their characters live a life of relative luxury and can spend their days focusing on their emotions and relationships.

Take This Waltz gets its name from a Leonard Cohen song, which is played during the film. Despite some quibbles about contrivances and economic unrealities, I enjoyed this film and admire the way Polley micro-focuses on conversations and minute changes in emotional atmosphere. This is exponentially more complex than the type of relationships portrayed in a mainstream romantic comedy.

Sarah Polley, though still in her early 30s, has had a long career as an actress. After some roles as a child actress, she appeared in films such as The Sweet Hereafter (1997)Go (mentioned in the chapter on Ensemble Films), and Guinevere (1999). She also directed Away From Her (2006) and the documentary Stories We Tell (2012).