Of his new film, This Must Be The Place, director Paolo Sorrentino declares; “I think that a story only truly comes alive when there’s a danger of failing”, and then falters, “…I hope I haven’t failed.”
He hasn’t failed, but only just – he’s certainly flirted with it.
Cheyenne, an aged American rocker now living on royalties in Dublin shuffles aimlessly around shopping malls, springing to life only during a game of pelota with his wife in his disused swimming pool, or to play the awkward host at a dinner party for a motley crew of guests. Outside the comfort of his home, accompanied by his wheeled caddy and occasionally Mary, a young Goth, or Jeffrey, his lewd stockbroker, Cheyenne – deeply depressed or deeply bored – muffles his way through his middle age with the same miserablist tones that one imagines constituted the music of his heyday.
Then, a phone call; his father is dying. He returns to New York, and – spurred on by his father’s (surprisingly) Jewish family – he embarks upon a soft-spoken, slow, shuffling schlep of a Nazi hunt, his faithful wheeled caddy transformed into a suitcase with wheels that accompanies him in search of the prison guard who once humiliated his father during the war.
Sean Penn as Cheyenne is extremely striking. His Ed Scissorhands-esque mop of black hair, makeup and fur-lined hoodie perfectly embody the awkwardness of his displacement. He melds Johnny Depp’s camp cautiousness with hints of the physicality of his previous portrayal of slain San Francisco politician/gay rights activist Harvey Milk. He’s boyish, but old. Small, but imposing. Modelled on The Cure front man Robert Smith, Penn garbed in goth is a faded and smeared sight; the white face powder nestles into the deep lines of his face, and the cochineal red of his lipstick seeps into the spidery lines surrounding his mouth. The effect is startling, and reinforces the fact that this is an inherently visual film which comes together only during moments of pure performance.
It’s clear that Sorrentino is attempting a melancholic, softly humorous road movie; a tribute to Wim Wenders, the Coens, David Lynch; a touch of odd Americana mixed with the kitsch forces of 1980s retro all thrown in. Yet where Sorrentino has attempted to combine the utterly serious (the Holocaust) with the utterly trivial (a goose pecking at Cheyenne’s hands as he hides from a Nazi’s wife), the film falls flat. Instead of successfully tempering one with the other, the sequences take on an incoherent feel, revealing that the central premise – aged rocker as Nazi hunter – does not quite total as a narrative.
Instead, it’s in the scenes of performance that the film transcends its narrative and structural problems. The superficial and mannered tone finally sinks into its true place – as a performance to be enjoyed rather than attempted realism, however knowingly stylised. Firstly, a dazzling turn by David Byrne of the Talking Heads; onstage, all in white – an angel from the 1980s giving a perfect rendition of ‘This Must Be The Place’, a coup de cinema as Peter Bradshaw aptly describes it.
Secondly, a scene in which Cheyenne – as the only resident of a nameless, placeless chintzy motel – dances to Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’. Here, Penn-as-Cheyenne dissolves into one character; his slow, baroque and mournful dancing for his own bygone rock era is moving, and one of the few moments where Cheyenne feels like a whole character rather than Penn-as-effeminate-rocker pastiche. It’s ironic, as it’s the one scene in Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello’s script that Penn was dubious about as he read. It’s a short sequence, quickly subsumed into the mannered and awkward rhythm of the film, but a rare moment that proves Sorrentino’s skill as a director.
This Must Be The Place is by no means a bad film, but Sorrentino has fallen into temptation; producing the delicious images he is so adept at, but hanging them upon a script whose parts don’t hook into place. Instead, the film feels like a series of self-conscious poses. It’s a brilliant act of cinematic pouting, but at no point is the narrative at ease, or matched with Penn’s brilliant performance of a pickled teenage rockstar stuck in skinny awkwardness.
Contributor Basia Lewandowska Cummings can be followed on Twitter @mishearance.