This must be the place
- Released: Thursday, 05 April 2012
- Runtime: 114 mins
- Distributor: Hopscotch Films.
Were there to be a competition for a list of most peculiar films, This Must be the Place would certainly find a place there. It is at times bizarre, comic, serious, deadly serious, enigmatic and never predictable. It also offers what must be Sean Penn’s most idiosyncratic performance.
If a reviewer simply said that the film is about an ageing, faded rock star who still dresses with make-up as in his heyday who goes to the United States from Dublin where he lives to find his family and then travels across America, with a touch of the Forrest Gump, on a mission of avenging his father and his concentration camp experiences, you would have a sketch synopsis – but a synopsis which does little value to the content and style of communication of the film.
And, if someone told you that they hated the film, you would not be surprised.
However, if you stay with the film and Sean Penn’s performance, then you will probably surrended, at least in part, to its strange story, its even more strange character, and the number of themes and issues that it raises. You may also surrender to the visual style, communicating the different parts of the States visited as well as the range of music, from quiet piano to rock and roll, but, especially to the songs of Talking Heads and more songs by David Byrne (who appears and sings the title song) and new songs by Byrne and Will Oldham.
Surprisingly, the Ecumenical Jury in Cannes 2011 awarded its prize to this film even though previous winning directors were represented (the Dardenne Brothers with The Kid with a Bike and Ari Kaurismaki with Le Havre, as well as The Tree of Life).
Sean Penn is Cheyenne, a pop star of twenty years earlier who lives in retirement in Dublin with his feisty wife of 35 years, played by Frances McDormand. The point is made that Cheyenne has not really grown up. He has a tinny, rather whining voice, a hesitant manner even though he is particularly direct and honest in what he has to say. He seems to survive with some friends in Ireland and the good management of his wife. He is also friends with a mother whose son has disappeared and who sits at the window waiting for him.
Cheyenne, with his Gothic look, hairstyle and make-up, decides to go to his family in New York where his father, estranged for thirty years, has died. He learns about his father’s time in the concentration camp and a guard who had humiliated him whom he has tried to track down all his life. Cheyenne dcides to go searching, a road trip (with a businessman’s precious car which has a somewhat fiery end) which takes him to see an old teacher in Michigan, a single mother with a chubby son (who also sings the title song) and changes their lives with his kindness. He also meets a man in Utah (Harry Dean Stanton) who reveals that it was he who took out the patent for suitcases with wheels in 1988. (Having long thought that whoever this person was, he deserved a Nobel Prize for such an energy saving invention, I was in admiration of this scene which, like many in the film, is not essential to the plot but adds atmosphere and feeling.)
The moral moment is when he confronts the guard, now an old man, and hears about his father’s experience. What is he to do with the man?
The film is poetic, lots of symbolism and visual detail, that elicits all kinds of sense responses and emotions. It also offers much to reflect on, the pop music industry and history and the perils of celebrity, let alone broader issues of the United States in the 21st century and, still, the deep memories of the Holocaust.
This must be the place, especially in the lyrics of the song (which is played and sung in many versions throughout the film) is home.
The writer-director is Italian, Paolo Sorrentino, who has been a favourite of the art house and festival circuits, especially in Cannes. His creation of Cheyenne reminds us that he has created quite grotesque characters in his two previous films, L’Amico di Famiglia (The Family Friend) where the central character is a completely unsympathetic and ugly mean tailor and money lender, and Il Divo, his portrait of once esteemed but mysteriously repellent Italian politician, Giulio Andreotti. Cheyenne is just as strange but much more likeable.