Van Dormael's 'Mr. Nobody' hits Venice

BRUSSELS — The moment former circus clown and children’s theater director Jaco Van Dormael started shooting his third feature “Mr. Nobody” in the summer of 2007, his Belgian fans started looking forward to the film’s Cannes bow.

But the fest turned down the project, nearly causing a national furor. The producers, led by Philippe Godeau of Pan-Europeenne, announced that they preferred to go straight to the public in October, but then in early July all the release dates were cancelled without explanation. Rumors started to circulate that the film was being re-edited, until a competition slot in Venice was announced and Belgian national honor was saved.

Van Dormael’s status at home goes back to his 1991 feature debut, “Toto the Hero,” which won the Camera d’Or in Cannes. Using a complex structure of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, it tells the story of a man convinced he has been denied a happy life by a mixup in the maternity ward.

Five years later, “The Eighth Day” caused similar ripples when Daniel Auteuil and Pascal Duquenne shared acting kudos at Cannes for their perfs as a harried exec and a young man with Down Syndrome who befriends him. The pic was a huge box office success, selling more than 5 million tickets across Europe, and becoming one of the top Belgian films ever.

But then Van Dormael seemed to disappear, an absence from filmmaking he now blames on a combination of family distractions and the length of time it takes him to be satisfied with his own writing.

Signs that he was ready to film again began to appear at the end of 2006, when the French script of “Mr. Nobody” was published as a book.

The resulting film came in budgeted at more than $50 million, bigger than any previous Belgian film. While this leans heavily on local subsidies and the nation’s tax shelter for investment, significant coin has also come from France’s Wild Bunch and Pathe and international funds such as Eurimages.

The film is Van Dormael’s English language debut, with an international cast led by Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley and Jared Leto as a 120-year old man in the year 2090 imagining alternate lives he could have led with three different women.

Van Dormael doesn’t think “Mr. Nobody” should be labelled a sci-fi pic. Rather, it is “a film about the “many possibilities that are inherent in our lives; about choice, chance and the complexities of their interaction.”

Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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