Sometimes a film is more interesting because of its flaws. One of my favourite movies of recent years is Robert Eggers’ debut The Witch, an astonishing film which combines top notch performances, brilliant writing, incredible cinematography and superb production design, yet scuppers all ambiguity and sense of dread with a rather silly and on-the-nose final scene. If only Eggers had ended the film a scene earlier, I think it would be close to perfect – if only. And yet it’s that if only that keeps me returning to the film, as I try in vain to square an ending I hate with a film I really love.
A more extreme example would be Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place, starring Sean Penn as Cheyenne, a faded rock star living comfortably as a semi-recluse in Ireland. He’s loaded and lives an amiable existence with his loving wife Jane (Frances McDormand, superb as always), but is so wracked with guilt since the lyrics of one of his songs spurred a couple of unbalanced young fans to commit suicide.
One day he receives a call saying his father is dying, who he hasn’t spoken to for thirty years. Terrified of flying, he takes a sea voyage back to New York instead, and arrives too late. He learns from his dad’s diary of an SS Officer called Alois Lange, who tormented his father during his time in Auschwitz. This revelation sends Cheyenne on a road trip across America in search of the war criminal, if he’s still alive. More than that, it rouses him from his decades long stagnation and gives him an opportunity to do something worthwhile, potentially confronting his father’s persecutor and find himself in the process.
It’s an intriguing set up, and much of the film’s humour and drama is derived from the incongruous presence of Cheyenne, a fifty year old man still dressed up in the Goth stylings of his ’80s heyday, trundling around the States in search of a Nazi (insert your own topical joke here). Cheyenne’s look is based on Robert Smith of The Cure, but more tellingly Penn adopts the fossilized gait of Ozzy Osbourne, hinting years of indulgence and substance abuse during his earlier rock and roll career.
This Must be the Place is Sorrentino’s first English language film, made a few years before he made a huge arthouse splash with The Great Beauty. The latter was received with rapturous appreciation by many critics as some kind of magnum opus, although it was a hollow example of style over substance, an emotional experience akin to spending a few hours flicking through the photos in a high end lifestyle magazine. This Must be the Place is far more human, a strange mash up of character study, comedy, road movie and mystery drama, centered around Penn’s bizarre turn as Cheyenne.
It is Penn’s performance that is either the film’s greatest asset or biggest flaw, depending on how you respond to it. Having seen the film twice, I still can’t decide whether he’s any good or not. I suspect it’s a little bit of both, but my gut feeling is that he’s badly miscast. On one hand, he plays Cheyenne as a man so frozen with regret that his tiny, monotone voice barely escapes his lips, and there are some beautiful moments, most notably when he takes up the guitar after twenty years to accompany a child’s rendition of the title song. On the other, when Cheyenne is required to show some emotion, Penn overacts so wildly that he is reminiscent of Garth from Wayne’s World. It’s a really odd performance, and for good or bad, you can’t take your eyes off him.
There are other issues. Sorrentino never nails down the tone of the film, and often scenes which should carry some emotional weight are defused by clumsy attempts at humour. Stylistically he’s a director who doesn’t have the patience to let images speak for themselves – seemingly Sorrentino never envisioned a scene he didn’t want to fly a camera over with a crane or sweep through with a tracking shot. For all it’s surface flash, there’s something inelegant about his endless flourishes.
That’s before we get into his use of cameos. There are elements of Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas in the film, given a heavy nod by an extended appearance by the recently departed Harry Dean Stanton. Then Sorrentino sycophantically wheels in David Byrne of the Talking Heads to perform the title song, and the film shudders to a halt as the director via Cheyenne gushes about how awesome Byrne is. It’s a bit embarrassing – see also: filthy cheat and football legend Maradona in Youth.
So, This Must be the Place. If only. There’s a great movie in here somewhere, if only Sorrentino has stuck to one genre, rather that flitting around between several; if only he could restrain his irritating directorial flourishes and pandering cameo love-ins; if only he’d found an actor better suited to playing Cheyenne than Sean Penn. Yet it’s all those if onlys that make it such a fascinating mess, and it’s still an ideal starting point for exploring the work of one of the decade’s most highly (over)rated auteurs. Although This Must be the Place irritates the hell out of me, I have a feeling this won’t be the last time I accompany Penn’s weird man-child emo-clown on his deadpan voyage of self-discovery.
This Must be the Place is showing on Oct 15 as part of Kino Scala‘s Paolo Sorrentino retrospective. Youth is also showing in English on Oct 16.