Outside of his chalet, deep in the mountains of Switzerland, Jaques Dubochet is chopping wood. He tries to live as he did before, but fame has stormed into his life. In 2017, a few months before this documentary was filmed, his research in cryo-electron microscopy earned him the Nobel Prize in chemistry.
The French documentary Citizen Nobel, directed by Stéphane Goël, captures a turning point in the life of this reserved scientist, as he passes from the shadow to the spotlight. The film title is a pun on noble/Nobel – conveying the struggle to remain humble when the world venerates you. It also points to the tension of Dubochet’s existence as both a civilian and a celebrity. “What’s a citizen Nobel? Someone who suddenly becomes a public figure,” he says, but the answer to how he should handle this position is more obscure.
At first, the introverted Dubochet struggles to cope with the attention and responsibilities involved in his new public-facing role. Straightforward in manner, he does not conceal his annoyance when children ask him to take a selfie or when fans bombard him with questions. With time, the lure of being regarded with esteem grows on him. Towards the end of the documentary, he introduces himself to young environmental activists as “famous” without a qualm. The shyness of his initial public appearances has vanished.
Yet, fame and power never cloud Dubochet’s sharp judgment. Determined to use his authority in order to enact positive change, he takes on an active role in the environmental movement. In spite of upsetting interactions with climate change deniers, this newfound vocation invigorates him. His animation emanates hope that we can still preserve the future of our youths. Through Dubochet’s energetic optimism, Citizen Nobel offers a refreshing approach to the climate crisis – one that is not overcast by doom.
The first half of the documentary lacks focus. Like Dubochet, the producers seem confused about the crux of the story. Perhaps this was intentional, crafted in order to capture Dubochet’s incertitude, but it also produces a loose and muddled narrative. The absence of a voiceover makes it more challenging to tie the shots together into a coherent storyline. The impact would have been stronger had Dubochet’s personal life – his family-life and upbringing – been fleshed out earlier. In spite of a slow start, Citizen Nobel remains a deeply affecting documentary, and definitely worth a viewing.
Citizen Nobel is out on Friday, December 16th, on True Story.