Over the last 10 years Paolo Sorrentino has emerged as one of the greatest of a new generation of European filmmakers. Through films such as The Consequences of Love and his political biopic, and opus, Il Divo, he has proven himself a master of stylish editing and perhaps the finest conjurer of perfectly framed imagery currently in the business.
Because of the praise hurled at him at Cannes and elsewhere, the pressure is on Sorrentino now with his new film This Must Be the Place, his English-language debut. And while it may not be the film that many hoped for, it is, unquestionably, a Sorrentino picture.
The new film stars Sean Penn (who practically demanded Sorrentino cast him in his next project after seeing Il Divo at Cannes in 2008) as an aging former rockstar, hiding from life and responsibilities in Dublin. Cheyenne, equal measures Boy George and The Cure’s Robert Smith, is a man living in the past; he still dresses as he did in his heyday, refusing to grow up, spending his time with friends half his age (if not literally, then emotionally stilted like himself). His character is complex, simultaneously wise and childlike, unable to take responsibility in his own life yet too eager to take it in the lives of others.
Like Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy, Cheyenne lives off royalties and does next to nothing with his days. His identity crisis is compounded when his elderly father falls ill, and he must return to the US for the first time in decades to face his past. But it is his father’s past he must come to terms with, as he becomes the heir to his father’s lifelong search – to find the man who terrorised him at Auschwitz during the Holocaust. The film takes a wide turn as Cheyenne treks across America in search of this ancient Nazi, finding an idea of himself along the way.
The story of the film is troubled; plot threads in the film’s first (Irish) act are abandoned as the action moves Stateside, and the Nazi-hunting aim feels tacked on, Sorrentino doesn’t seem to care for this in the same way he does about Cheyenne, or feel the same anger he did over the political corruption on display in Il Divo. But that aside, this is a masterful production. Sorrentino’s use of evocative editing, punchy and unexpected musical cues and breathtaking, sometimes puzzling imagery leaves the likes of Drive’s Nicolas Winding Refn in his dust.
From the moment the camera pans down the glacial facade of Dublin’s Aviva Stadium into the relative squalor of a grey Sandymount cul-de-sac, you know you’re in for a visual treat. Sorrentino may be the first filmmaker to find real beauty in modern Dublin. Similarly, his wide, endless shots of American Midwest reveal wonders the likes of which have not been caught on camera since Wim Wenders made Paris, Texas.
There are plenty of delights to be found throughout Cheyenne’s strange odyssey. Kitsch Americana abounds. The strangest of strangers are met, calling to mind the films of the Coen Brothers, littered with their brief, memorable eccentrics. Talking Heads legend David Byrne shows up to dispense advice to Cheyenne and unleash a hypnotic performance of the film’s title track. Harry Dean Stanton, another link to Paris, Texas, appears as a man who claims to have invented the wheeled suitcase.
Frances McDormand puts in a fine performance as Cheyenne’s devoted wife, but with so much of the musician’s history left unexplained, it’s hard to not feel like we’re missing something required to fully understand their relationship. Admirable support is offered up by Judd Hirsch and Kerry Condon, but this is really Sean Penn’s moment in the sun. Playing a character so utterly against type that most of his previous characters would probably want him dead, Penn conjures something familiar and yet confusingly new. He delivers profound, witty, lively comments from the mouth of this zombified goth, and brings surprising depth to a character who borders so precariously on parody.
While the film’s abandoning of its Irish storyline reeks of a bid for tax breaks, there’s no denying a wonderful work of art has been produced here. Sadly, it is not entirely a satisfying one, and the film’s concluding on a number of overly puzzling sequences leaves a sour taste in the mouth unbecoming of what has gone before.
While not the director’s finest work, it is still a noteworthy film, and should launch him swiftly on the international market, while reigniting the career of its star.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)