His first English language feature, Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place turns the U-turn into a narrative art as a has-been popstar turns Nazi-hunter.
On The Road by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Paolo Sorrentino never makes the same film twice. And after the upbeat stylistics of Il Divo, his first English language film This Must Be The Place is something of a slow shuffle. A return to the glacial pace of The Consequences Of Love and the sartorial freakishness of The Family Friend, his latest film is a fresh yet familiar reconstruction of Sorrentino musings. But with a terrific performance by Sean Penn as Cheyenne, the rich, drug-addled rock star unable to stop being a kid and with a wickedly funny script, This Must Be The Place has a non-conformist charm worthy of its made-up and backcombed hero.
Skewered by an abrupt volte-face midway through, This Must Be The Place begins in Dublin, slowly piecing together fragments of a story; Cheyenne’s attempts at stock market investments, bare-hand bolote with his firefighter wife Jane (another brief but magnificent performance by Frances McDormand), his attempts at matchmaking emo friend Mary with straight-cut waiter Desmond or conversations about his randy friend’s exploits with girls in plaster casts. There are more elliptical undercurrents hinted at too – the disappearance of Mary’s brother Tony and the grave of two fragile young brothers who committed suicide after listening to Cheyenne’s depressing prog rock. But none make too much of a dent on the old rocker’s life of retirement – a fairly empty void filled only with amusing impasses to stave away boredom and guilt. Until that is, upon the death of his father, he takes a slow boat to New York (he’s afraid of flying) and, despite the years of teenage angst estrangement, Cheyenne picks up the Nazi hunt that dogged his vengeful dying dad.
Cue desert vistas, gas stations, motels and diners, a world away from comely Irish domesticity. And as Cheyenne turns into cinema’s most unlikely private eye, wheedling information out of Aloise Lang’s wife and granddaughter with naive charm, finally, with the help of professional Nazi hunter Mordecai Midler, he tracks down and confronts his father’s persecutor in his snow-bound mobile home. Once again, Sorrentino’s narrative takes a jump-cut, and circled by the camera, Heinz Lieven gives an amazing performance as the former SS officer confronted with unburied truths in a truly electric scene.
Cheyenne’s filial revenge may be humiliatingly appropriate, but it remains positively heartbreaking to see the octogenarian forced out naked onto the snow. It seems to be Sorrentino’s intention though to mix his tragedy with comedy, the taboo-seriousness of the holocaust with the ethics-free lightheartedness of the frivolous. It’s a riveting scene but still oceans apart from the rest of This Must Be The Place and Cheyenne’s father’s survivor diaries sit above the terrestrial plot, unable to penetrate the atmosphere of comic crisis and acerbic one-liners with their gravitas. It’s an interesting conceit, but utterly divisive, knifing the film into two.
More than anything though This Must Be The Place is Penn’s film, undeniably breathtaking as the shuffling, straw-sucking, lipstick-advice-giving, back-combed has-been. He’s the eternal child, his ascent into adulthood arrested by an irrepressible teenage feeling his father doesn’t love him because of the eyeliner he wears. Slowly, This Must Be The Place debunks Cheyenne’s look though as a mask he wears, preventing his own development to adulthood. It’s a narrative jolt which adds a strangely conformist twist to the inevitable final-reel reveal when Cheyenne appears, drug-induced shuffle still intact, out of the black with no make-up or jewellery. And that Mary’s mother sees her son Tony in the clean-cut Cheyenne lends a rather uncertain stickiness to the final reel, a half-baked plot-turn more laughable than wondrous.
But there’s no denying, despite its narrative faultlines, that Sorrentino has a fantastic quip-filled script in This Must Be The Place. Frances McDormand and Sean Penn conjure between them a lovable, quirky charm which enchants the film to the very end. And there’s real pathos in the taboo-filled tragedy Sorrentino so cleanly portrays. As a road movie, it’s a fairly anodyne journey of self-discovery, and it’s perhaps not as dazzling as his slick Italian language showpieces. But with his beautiful portrait of the American south and its New Mexico light and landscape, This Must Be The Place opens up a whole new horizon of storylines coming into view.
This Must Be The Place is released in the UK on 6th April 2012