Jaco van Dormael - The return of a hero

After 12 years off, the award-winning Jaco van Dormael is finishing a new film. What took him so long, asks Sheila Johnston

Friday 28 March 2008 01:00
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On a cold winter's day in Berlin, Jaco van Dormael, the former wunderkind of world cinema, is contemplating his current career status with equanimity. "After one year, people ask, 'Why doesn't he make another film?'. After two years, they say, 'He's stopped making films'."

The genial Belgian, a former circus clown, smiles serenely. "After 11 years, you are a has-been. And that's the most comfortable position of all, because you have total freedom. Nobody expects anything from you any more."

Van Dormael, 51, enjoyed a meteoric rise in the early 1990s. His debut, Toto the Hero, a dreamlike, humorous film about a man haunted by the conviction that he was switched at birth, was named Best First Film in Cannes, the first of a raft of major prizes. Five years later came The Eighth Day, about the friendship between a jaded business executive and a man with Down syndrome. Some critics found it mawkish, but many more were reluctantly disarmed by its poetry and sweetness. So, too, were audiences. Van Dormael was hot. That was in 1996.

Then silence. The director went to ground. Creative meltdown? No: he was, he says, "just living. I took care of my kids [he has two daughters, now aged 16 and 20]. I was writing every day," he insists. "I was not blocked at all by my early success." Again, he smiles. "I could have had much more without any problem."

Now, Van Dormael is staging a comeback of audacious proportions: a £25m science- fiction fantasy, shot in English with a cosmopolitan cast including Jared Leto, Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley and Rhys Ifans. Called Mr Nobody, it recently completed a six-month shoot in three countries and will now spend a full year in post-production: it will not be ready before the spring of 2009. Meanwhile, it has yet to be sold in a number of major territories. There is a lot riding on this gamble, not least Van Dormael's own future in cinema. Does he, perhaps, feel under pressure?

"No. Sometimes I am anxious for Philippe, but not for myself," he declares, waving over at his producer, Philippe Godeau, whose belief in the project extended to putting up a personal guarantee for half the budget. "Friendship and trust make it possible to make a film like this," says Godeau, a long-time collaborator. Despite his long absence from the screen, Van Dormael is, he notes, still sufficiently bankable for funding to be raised before any of the cast were in place, solely on the strength of the script and the director's name. Still, an outsider must wonder whether this time he can pull it off.

Leto plays the film's title character, also know as Nemo: the oldest living mortal in a brave late 21st-century world where death has become extinct thanks to stem-cell technology. On his deathbed, Nemo reviews his life, or rather, three of the alternative lives he might have led, and three of the women he might have loved.

This idea of parallel lives has been explored before – in Toto the Hero and also in films such as Run, Lola, Run, Sliding Doors, or Kieslowski's Blind Chance. Unlike any of those, Mr Nobody has an ambitious philosophical underpinning inspired by scientific tomes on chaos theory and the butterfly effect, pigeon superstition, and the space-time continuum.

"It's fascinating to learn that we are living in 11 dimensions," Van Dormael enthuses. "We are not aware of them but they are there. What we think is the truth is just an aspect of the truth." But what does it all mean? "I don't have any idea. But it's poetic." While waiting for the project to take off, he took the remarkable step of publishing the screenplay; perhaps, he says, its readers will imagine a version more beautiful than the one he will make.

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The intricate script is hard to follow on the page. But it starts to make sense when I watch 15 minutes of rushes showing scenes from Nemo's childhood and youth in Britain. The three lives are distinguished by colour coding and music cues, and the beautiful design is partly inspired by Martin Parr, the Magnum photographer celebrated for his surreal, richly coloured images of British life.

"I'm hoping the film will say to my children all the things I am not able to express, about the passing of time, memory, the importance of little things, the notion of choice," Godeau says.

We are at the Babelsberg studios, on the outskirts of Berlin. One of the sound stages has been transformed into a spaceship hangar. Inside this giant wheel of a spaceship, tourists travelling home from Mars troll up and down toting duty-free bags. A meteor shower strikes. Later, a green-screen effect will show the ship's cargo, hundreds of bicycles, spinning off wildly into the cosmos.

Leto and Kruger disembark from the spaceship for a tea break. "When I take a role, I'm looking for something that makes my heart beat faster," says Kruger, who plays one of Nemo's lovers. "Jaco has a true love for women. I've never felt so looked at." The pair are a singular vision, like living sculptures from Tate Modern, with raised piercings, tattoos and hair lacquered into stiff frosted-silver helmets.

"You can say whatever you want about the project, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Leto, whose idiosyncratic previous roles include the crazed drug addict in Requiem for a Dream, and an arms dealer in Lord of War.

"It's an action movie, a thriller, a comedy, a love story. This could be the worst film we ever made, or it could be the best. But that's always the thing about film," Leto adds.

The history of cinema is littered with one- and two-hit wonder directors. Van Dormael's film might just make him a Mr Somebody again. But if, in a parallel universe, it fails to fly, well, he will simply try something different.

"This film tells that every life is interesting and every life is hard," says Van Dormael. "What's great is to imagine everything you could have done, without regret. I realise that I don't have any control over what will happen to me. But, the older I get, the more I think life is funny, that's for sure."

'Mr Nobody' opens next year

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