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Cannes 2011

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This Must Be The Place

Posted on Wednesday May 25, 2011, 11:29 by Damon Wise in Cannes 2011
This Must Be The Place

Take a look at that picture. Just look at it. How can any film starring Sean Penn looking like THAT possibly be any good? Now imagine that he'll be playing that role with an effete, whiney, baby voice, and that he isn't simply playing a faded rock star – his character becomes A NAZI HUNTER. I must admit that my hopes weren't high for Paolo Sorrentino's This Must Be The Place, in which Penn plays Cheyenne, a retired rocker who lives in wealthy seclusion in Dublin with his wife Jane (Frances McDormand). Cheyenne was an emo superstar in the 80s, but gave it all up after his miserabilist lyrics caused the suicide of two teenage boys. Sustained by his royalties, he lives like a ghost; his best friend is a teen goth named Mary (Eve Hewson) whose brother has disappeared, and the highlight of his week is their trip to the shopping mall, where he trundles round with his trusty trolley.

Cheyenne's idle existence is thrown into chaos when he receives word from his native New York. His father is dying, so Cheyenne must board a plane for the first time in 30 years and visit him on his deathbed. When he passes, his father's belongings reveal that the old man suffered a terrible humiliation during his time in a concentration camp during WW2. Learning that the perpetrator is in the US and has changed his identity, Cheyenne decides to track him down, enlisting the services of a professional Nazi hunter before deciding to go it alone. But far from being a tense revenge thriller, This Must Be The Place is actually a rather sweet road movie, in which Cheyenne is distracted along the way by random meetings with strangers who reconnect him with his humanity.

I'll accept from the off that this isn't a film for everybody. Almost everyone I met after the first screening enjoyed it, but not all of them thought that made it a good film and one even thought it was “terrible”, despite being fully prepared to see it again. Penn's performance is not always convincing, the characters don't always gel, and the very, very end of the film is exactly what it shouldn't be. But for some reason this bizarre travelogue works, due largely to Sorrentino's cinematic expertise (if you haven't seen his last film, the dynamic political thriller Il Divo, see it now). The American landscape is breathtaking, but my favourite scene is an incredible moment when Cheyenne goes to see his old friend David Byrne (playing himself) in concert, playing an arrangement of the Talking Heads song that gives the film its title (and which crops up in various cover versions throughout). Byrne's cameo, though small, is pivotal. Not only is the full title of the song This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody) – there is a LOT of naïvety here – but Sorrentino's film owes a big debt to Byrne's one and only film as director, the digressive American odyssey/oddity True Stories (1986).

The Marmite reactions to This Must Be The Place will doubtless hold up its UK release, and it will be a very bold distributor that takes it. But of all the films in Cannes, this is the one that got under my skin the most. I still can't believe that I enjoyed it so much, and I still don't know whether it's genuinely good or so bad it's unintentionally good. Either way, I'd love to see it again, if only to go with someone seeing it blind so I can watch their jaw drop when Penn makes his first entrance.

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