Counterfactuals: On Cherche Nemo

by Henry Gorman

Pixar has never been afraid to tap into well-beloved mythologies to drive its films. Brave pulled its threads from a rich tapestry of Celtic folklore. Cars derived its appeal from America’s cult of motorsport. Up has a high-adventure ancestry stretching back through Indiana Jones and the tales of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs to a foundation of Western literature, the Odyssey itself. The Incredibles drew its strength from two of the mightiest modern American myths: the all-powerful superhero and the even stronger nuclear family.

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 Nothing can stop the power of heteronormative procreation!

But Pixar has also tapped into a mythos even more sacred to filmmakers’ hearts. I’m referring, of course, to that 1960s-era explosion of cinematic creativity, the French New Wave.

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 A poster from Jules et Jim, an archetypal French New Wave film.

Yes, this counts as meeting the art history quota.  Shut up.

Where, we might ask, is this influence most visible? Perhaps, one might think, in Toy Story, a film which simultaneously highlights its characters’ artificial nature and their very real pain, using its characters’ status as commodities themselves to subtly comment on the condition of human beings trapped in a capitalist world. Or, perhaps in Ratatouille, a film that raises questions about the nature of creation, authenticity, and art. Or The Incredibles, which, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, appropriates the iconography of speculative fiction for its own possibly subversive purposes.

But no! We see the influence of that French cinematic tidal wave most sharply in the most surprising of films: Finding Nemo, that heartwarming tale of a father clownfish’s quest to save his son. What you probably don’t know is that Finding Nemo is a remake of On Cherche Nemo, a mostly-forgotten masterpiece released by Jean-Luc Godard in 1963.

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100% Pure Art Cinema, motherfuckers

On Cherche Nemo is set in the big French port city of Marseilles. There, a moody, withdrawn widower named Marlin (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo) lives alone in his apartment with his beloved, crippled son, a boy named Nemo. Marlin is finally convinced by his caring neighbors to take the boy to school. Unfortunately, at the day’s end, the lad, in a fit of rebellion, wanders off on his own at the day’s end and becomes lost.

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Belmondo as Marlin, wandering forlorn through the city

The shy Marlin is forced to explore the world for the first time as he wanders the streets of Marseilles searching for his son. He is accosted by three vicious gangsters who debate what to do with him while pointedly imitating the tropes of 1930s American gangster film. As Marlin is about to perish at their hands, he is saved by the intervention of  Dorée, a playful young woman (played by Anna Karina, of course) who has such disdain for the past that she refuses to acknowledge its existence. Together, Marlin and Dorée wander about Marseilles looking for the boy, frequently turning to talk to the camera about their adventures. Dorée’s deliberate forgetfulness underlines the fragmentation produced by Goddard’s typical narrative style and his extensive use of jump cuts.

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Belmondo as Marlin again, in the now-infamous “chicken scene”

Nemo, meanwhile, finds himself in the waiting room of a dentist’s office. He is surrounded by a motley cast of characters, representative of a broad variety of human types. All of them have been waiting to leave the office forever, but have failed to escape. They talk to Nemo about themselves. It quickly becomes clear that the room is symbolic of life in what Jean-Paul Sartre calls “bad faith,” and none of them will be able to escape until they recognize the nature of the human condition.

Marlin and Dorée negotiate a series of hazards, including a mysterious mob of masked knife-wielding strangers who reveal themselves to be harmless when Dorée plays with them (the jellyfish in Finding Nemo), and a kindly, carefree beatnik who gives them a ride in his car (the turtle). Marlin develops courage and no longer lives in fear of the world around him, at one point driving a car into the water to demonstrate his liberation.

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Their car, in the water

Ultimately, the pair arrive at the waiting room, where, with the help of the inmates, Dorée and Marlin are able to save Nemo from the depths of anomie. The film ends happily with all three liberated from the chains of past experience.

Disclaimer: Everything above is totally made up.  But you probably wish it was true.

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