“We go from an age when we say ‘My life will be that’, to an age when we say ‘That’s life’.”
Both in terms of direction and performance, there’s a lot to admire in filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s problematic fifth feature This Must Be The Place, the first made outside of his native Italy. He’s a director with brilliant visual sensibilities, his sense of composition and movement within his frame eliciting comparisons to Martin Scorsese, particularly given his strengths with music to underscore his consistently exquisite images. There’s always been a velvety luxuriousness to his aesthetic sensibility, honing his style and growing in technical complexity with each film, from his breakthrough hit The Consequences of Love (2004) to his outstanding previous picture Il Divo (2008), which benefited as much from a smart, serpentine script as it did from a spectacular central performance from regular collaborator Tony Servillo. In this respect, This Must Be The Place doesn’t disappoint, whether he’s shooting rock-star-in-exile Cheyenne (Sean Penn) shuffling around his Dublin pile or swooping through a New Mexican gas station, Sorrentino’s visual prowess is never in doubt, reaching a dizzying peak at a New York gig for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, singing the track from which the title of the film derives in a continuous take of Escher-like illusive inversion.
Performances are especially fine here too, with Penn seemingly channelling Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol via Robert Smith in his portrayal of a rock star with plenty of baggage; metaphorically as he struggles to come to terms with the suicide of two teenage fans and the death of his estranged father, and literally in the shopping basket he pushes around, later transposed to the wheeled suitcase which he drags around America, in pursuit of the Nazi guard who persecuted his father during his time at Auschwitz. Penn keeps Cheyenne on the right side of parody, and there’s much to like in the opening scenes set in Dublin, most of all the character-driven moments between Penn and his wife of thirty five years, Jane, brilliantly played by Frances McDormand.
It’s only when the main thrust of the narrative kicks in that the film swiftly begins to unravel, even if there are hints of such problems early-on in the portrayal of the mother of Cheyenne’s friend Mary (Eve Hewson), forever gazing out of her window, awaiting the return of her inexplicably vanished son. It seems that everyone in the film is looking for something, consumed with individual fears they’re unable to escape; whether its desertion or abandonment, their past or their present, when Sorrentino’s screenplay shifts from character study to show its larger thematic hand, we begin to sink under the weight of the wandering lost souls trying to connect through dopey fortune cookie platitudes. If Forrest Gump told the story of a man finding himself by reaching out to others on a journey through American history, This Must Be The Place plumbs similar depths of sentimentality in its journey through American geography.
No matter how beautifully he photographs it, Sorrentino’s view of the American road as Cheyenne crosses the country is straight out of a tourist book. Enraptured as much by such roadside idols to small town individuality as ‘the world’s largest pistachio’ as by the inhabitants who describe them with pride, his portrait could do with the objective filter employed by Werner Herzog in one of his best examinations of Americana, Stroszek (1977). His encounters on the road attempt to document the modern American condition; the dreams, fears and sense of disconnection from both family and the nation in the larger sense, but as Cheyenne replies to Harry Dean Stanton’s character, inventor of the wheeled suitcase, when asked if he’s travelling or sightseeing: “I’m not really sure of the difference”.
As Cheyenne says, "Pain is not the final destination", and the film suggests that resolution of the past is key to acceptance of the future. Through Cheyenne's saccharine words of wisdom, characters finally conquer their inner demons, Mary understands her brother's need to disappear and a young boy overcomes his fear of water when Cheyenne builds him a swimming pool (!); but it's his own sense of personal victory that proves most troublesome. The idea of validation through conformity aside, seen as he lights his first cigarette and loses the hair and make-up, Cheyenne's actions when he finally catches up with the Nazi war criminal that destroyed his father's life are astonishing in the degree to which they jar with every other character's final retribution and redemption. When a guy hanging out in a gun store tells him that "if we're licensed to be monsters, we end up with only one desire; to truly be monsters", perhaps even he didn't quite have an image of such abject humiliation in mind with which to find closure.
It's one of many contradictions in a film of stylistic control but narrative and thematic disorder. As Cheyenne jealously exclaims to David Byrne after his sensational performance, "You have such precise thoughts!", it’s just a shame that in this instance one can't say the same about Sorrentino.
This Must Be The Place – 2011 – Italy, France, Ireland, USA – 118 mins – Dir : Paolo Sorrentino
This Must Be The Place is screening at the London Film Festival on 26th & 27th October and goes on general release on 9th March 2012.
Tickets for the London Film Festival screenings are available here