Mr. Nobody: The Right Path


Warning: this post contains spoilers for Mr. Nobody. Go watch the movie first.

“In Chess, it’s called Zugzwang; where the only viable move…is not to move.”

This is a little misleading. Zugzwang is actually when no matter which move a player makes, they will put themselves at a disadvantage. But in chess, you can’t not move. You have to move. No matter what.

Life is the same way.

“As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.”

You can’t choose not to choose. If you don’t choose, you lose opportunities, and choices are made for you.

“Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else, and it would have had just as much meaning.”

There is no right path. There is no right decision. Nemo’s choice to marry Jean is the closest he comes to making a bad decision. Nemo writes that he now has very little room to make decisions in his life with Jean; that everything is narrow.

And it’s just not true. Nemo is not locked into a future where he loses his life at the end of a mobster’s handgun. He dooms himself when he gives up on making decisions; when he decides to let a coin toss determine his fate.

This is not what Mr. Nobody means when he says “Everything could have been anything else, and it would have had just as much meaning.” Choices are not meaningless.

What makes choices meaningful…is us.

The Elise path is where Nemo seems happiest. By all accounts, it looks like a bad decision. Elise is depressed and constantly absent from the family. And eventually, she leaves.

All the while, Nemo is still clearly in love with Elise. He clearly loves his children, and they love him. Even when Elise leaves, he still has the kids left at the end of this path in some sort of funhouse mirror image to his own childhood. But unlike his own parents, Nemo is present.

We don’t get to see much of the path after Elise leaves, but Nemo still has so many more choices left to make in this path. He still has a lot of life left.

And yet, the movie leaves little to ambiguity when the final word to slip out of Mr. Nobody’s mouth is “Anna”.

Earlier in the movie, the Child does not make a choice. His mother tells him to run, so he does, and his father tells him to stay, so he does. It’s a matter of chance whether he ends up on the train or with his father; whether he loses his shoe and the train overtakes him, or whether he makes the full sprint in time to grasp his mother’s hand.

In the end, the Child chooses. He chooses Anna when he blows that leaf.

When Nemo is rewarded with that liberating embrace, he is assured he has chosen The Right Path.

So, choosing Anna is The Right Path…right? That means all the other paths were The Wrong Path…right?

I don’t think so. No matter which Path Nemo chooses, it is wrought with sadness and misery, but with both Elise and Anna, there are segments bursting with happiness. In both Paths, Nemo gives himself fully to his choice, and that’s the key.

With Jean, Nemo constantly believes he has made the wrong choice, later concluding that making choices does not matter at all. Nemo is never happy in this Path. This Path is a prison of his own making. He is more competent in this Path than in any other. It is a choice born completely of spite for Elise not choosing him. This version of him knows he would have been happier with Elise, and has nothing but spite for every aspect of his life with Jean, no matter how much wealthier he is in this life.

Perhaps this will make more sense if we look at the role water takes in the film:

Nemo Can’t Swim

Nemo drowns numerous times throughout this film. Early on, he states outright that he can’t swim.

This is an elegant metaphor best explained with this exchange:

Elise: I hurt everybody! I hurt you, the children… this can’t go on.

Nemo: Together we can do it.

Elise: Then you’re all gonna end up drowning with me.

Nemo: We’ll learn to swim. I love you.

It’s in the life with Elise that we can see Nemo genuinely trying to learn how to “swim”; that is, to make choices.

The Right Path

Mr. Nobody is not a film about making The Right Choice. Anna is The Right Choice, but so is Elise, and Jean could be too, under the right circumstances. Mr. Nobody is a film about making choices meaningful.

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