Hey, never quite made it to the proposed sixth film in our mini world cinema film festival, but yesterday lunchtime was made more interesting by This Must Be The Place, the first English-language and part-Irish-part-American-set film by Paolo Sorrentino, whose urbane and surprising hitman drama Consequences Of Love I remember falling for a few years ago. (The rest of his admired back catalogue is to come.) Two things to say about this curious picaresque about a retired Robert Smith-style Goth-pop star (Sean Penn) returning to America on the occasion of his estranged father’s death: one, it is less than the sum of its parts, and two, it was, for me, tainted by the woman laughing her head off all the way through it at the cinema.
Let’s deal with my artistic complaint first. I love films like this, in which oddball characters go on a journey across unfamiliar terrain. The fact that it begins in Dublin, a city I know well, makes it all the more interesting, and although it appears that the Irish part is a case of the funding tail wagging the narrative dog (I may be wrong, but this is an Italian-French-Irish co-production), I think Sorrentino made a decent fist of capturing suburban Irish life, helped by the use of local actors. Countless European directors, successful on their own turf, have travelled to America to have a crack at cinema’s most iconic landscape. But something is lost in translation. The director and his co-writer Umberto Contarello have, presumably, written an Italian script about an American living in the Republic of Ireland who travels across New Mexico and Utah to track down the German tormentor of his Jewish father at Auschwitz, and had it translated into English. This gives the dialogue an unreal quality, which might not be a fatal flaw, but in this case, is.
Sean Penn’s performance is deliberately mannered: squeaky and slow and childlike. (He’s not Robert Smith, but he’s visually modelled on him, and Smith is quite a childlike man in voice and attitude.) This will alienate as many people as it captivates. I didn’t mind it, but is sets up a barrier between audience and protagonist that’s pretty much insurmountable. Real life goes on around him – as indeed it might if you were a cosseted rock star living in a castle for tax reasons – and his return to the US is supposed to be awkward and difficult, as he and it are as estranged as he and his father. But, the whole thing ends up a series of beautifully-shot and sometimes originally conceived episodes and scenarios. There’s nothing to glue it together bey0nd Penn’s freaky turn. The Irish bit and the American bit don’t fit together, and even though he’s on a quest, the individual elements of that quest don’t fit together either. There’s no momentum. No jeopardy. It “looks at” quirky Americana, but make no comment about it. Some of the people he meets are warm and welcoming, others are not, but they are treated exactly the same. To say there’s zero character development is true, but also irrelevant, as Cheyenne – which is what the rock star is oddly called – has no character. And I say that with huge admiration for Penn. I think in this case, it’s the director who’s at fault.
A shame, really, as it’s a potentially powerful story, with an exiled rocker coming face to face with the Holocaust. But instead it’s merely trite.
And then there was the laughing woman in the cinema. I do not blame her for laughing. It’s good to laugh. It’s good to enjoy yourself. And how refreshing to hear someone audibly enjoying a film in this emotionally straightjacketed country! I don’t hold with the idea that “serious” cinema must be greeted with silent, ruminative, beard-stroking reverence. (I laughed at a couple of the gags in Headhunters.) But this person seemed to find the very sight of Cheyenne funny, and thus laughed pretty much every time she saw him, or if he spoke. Maybe Sorrentino would welcome this extreme reaction, and actually, who cares whether he does or not, it’s for us to decide how to react to a film, not the director. I will observe though that the rest of the patrons in the cinema were largely silent, except for the occasional audible smile or snort. I smiled at many of the things Cheyenne said, but for me, it wasn’t laugh-out-loud material. It’s a rather sad film, about a sad man, going through a sad experience. The problem here is clearly not the laughing patron’s, but mine: I just didn’t get what she was laughing at. Now, it was a lunchtime showing, so I’m kind of assuming she wasn’t high or drunk, but it was that kind of laughter. I do no blame her for this – as I say, the fact that it bothered me is my issue and not hers – but I can’t lie: I did get on my nerves, and may have affected my enjoyment of This Must Be The Place.
And it might have simply been the film.
My favourite films of this rich and unusual Easter weekend, then? Le Havre and Headhunters. Victory to France, Finland, Germany and Norway!