Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Face with a View: Sean Penn and This Must Be the Place

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 23, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page. 

While visiting Paris last August, a particular movie poster kept catching my eye. Nestled incongruously among the myriad of CGI images of Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock (damn the French were excited about that Tintin movie!) was the strikingly large and dour face of Sean Penn. With teased hair, pale skin, lipstick and eyeliner reminiscent of an 80s-era glam rocker, Penn’s heartbreaking countenance was almost impossible to ignore. I was intrigued. I wrote down the movie’s title, This Must Be the Place (suggestively in English even in this French context), and vowed to find out more about it. The thumbnail description that I soon found left me all the more fascinated: Penn, it seemed, was playing an ageing 80s rock star who, upon the death of his father, ends up on a road trip across America in search of a Nazi war criminal. All that, plus an unapologetic nod to perhaps my favourite Talking Heads’ song, and I was hooked. I returned to Toronto soon after, and waited patiently for the film’s North American release. Months passed, and nothing. By the New Year, I’d forgotten about it completely.

That is, until a few weeks ago, when I finally had the chance to see it – and I’ve been talking it up ever since. This Must Be the Place turns out to be either the strangest road movie ever made or the single quirkiest Holocaust-themed movie since Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (although I should stress that Nazis notwithstanding the two films have absolutely nothing else in common). The only reason I'd hesitate to call This Must Be the Place a Neglected Gem is that I’m hoping there's still time it will find the wider audience it deserves. (The film has played widely in France, Italy and the U.K., but as far as I can tell it hasn’t yet had any theatrical play in the U.S. or Canada. As of today, it certainly hasn’t screened in Toronto.) With the visual punch of Down by Law, and the quirky dialogue, characters and situations of Mystery Train, the movie looks and feels like a lost early Jim Jarmusch project – and no doubt the director intended it to be just that. Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino – most famous for The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008) – This Must Be the Place (though it is a Italian/French co-production) is Sorrentino’s first English-language feature, and apparently he wrote the screenplay with Sean Penn specifically in mind. And it is Penn’s film: he’s in practically every scene and his stunning performance carries the whole movie.

Penn plays Cheyenne, a retired American rock star who, almost three decades after his last public performance, still dresses like The Cure’s Robert Smith and speaks like a pre-scandal era Michael Jackson, Since his musical career’s sudden rise and fall in the 1980s, Cheyenne has been living a reclusive life in Ireland, sheltered from the world (and perhaps the worst parts of himself) by his devoted wife Jane (Frances McDormand), herself a Dublin firefighter. Cheyenne is a 50-year-old man-child, seemingly content to spend his days nursing his sciatica, hanging out in the mall with his equally disaffected teen Goth friend Mary (Irish newcomer Eve Hewson), and playing handball in a drained pool with his wife. This long period of somnambulance comes to a sudden end when Cheyenne gets word that his estranged father is dying in New York City.

Sean Penn and Frances McDormand
Part midlife crisis, part (late life) coming-of-age tale, the movie really takes off with Cheyenne’s arrival in New York City – where he learns for the first time that not only was his recently-deceased father a Holocaust survivor, but that he had also spent most of the 30 years of Cheyenne’s absence trying to track down the Nazi guard who tormented him in Auschwitz. Alone for the first time in years, Cheyenne takes his father’s mission upon himself and sets out on trip through the American heartland in search of a Nazi war criminal, slowly coming to life again with every stop on his cross-country journey.

Often silent, interior, and inquisitive, Penn plays the character with a low-burning intensity.  Cheyenne is simultaneously frustrating and intriguing, probably as much to the audience as to the people he meets onscreen. Penn’s performance ultimately reveals an eminently likable man, but it takes much of the movie to get to know him. This is especially true in the movie’s first thirty minutes, which – set entirely in Ireland – plays like a deliberately more aimless and self-indulgent story. But despite his manner and appearance, Cheyenne is eventually revealed to be a uniquely self-aware human being. He knows when he’s being patronized, mocked or coddled, and endures it with a quiet dignity. He is wry, funny, often wise and very easy to root for, even as his story takes odder and odder turns.

One scene of Penn's in particular, opposite Judd Hirsch, is a standout. Hirsch plays Mordecai Midler, a 79-year-old hard-boiled but world-weary Nazi hunter who doesn’t know what to make of this 50-year-old man in lipstick sitting across the desk. When Midler accuses Cheyenne of being pedantic, Cheyenne notes, in his usual slow and deliberate manner: “My instinct tells me that pedantry is an essential characteristic for capturing Nazis.”  With Hirsch’s appearance, the film takes on a new kind of energy. Though reticent to take on the case itself, Midler begins to interrogate Cheyenne:

-  “Do you know about the Holocaust?”
- “In a general sort of way.”
- “And your father? Did you know your father?”
- “In a general sort of way.”

Soon afterward, we find ourselves with Cheyenne and a group of teenagers in a high school classroom as signature photos of the Nazi horror are projected on a small screen. Though nothing is said, both Midler and we know this is likely the first time Cheyenne been exposed to these images.  Cheyenne disappears before the last slide is shown and he never speaks directly of it again, but everything that follows – including his single-minded commitment to a journey across rural America – are clear, if indirect, expressions of the effect these revelations have had on him.

Judd Hirsch and Sean Penn

This Must Be the Place is about many things, but somehow that wordless scene has lingered with me the longest. For most of us perhaps, the particular horror of the Holocaust is ever-present. But even so, I can vividly recall the time and place when I first read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. (Se questo è un uomo, or “If This Is a Man ,” in the original Italian – which come to think of it, would also have been a striking – if likely over-reaching – title for Sorrentino’s project.) Even after twenty years, small, horrifying details from Levi’s memoir still haunt me – so much so that I can still almost see the particular words on those pages in front of me. And this is what Cheyenne’s face called up for me: that experience of hearing a message delivered, it would seem, from another universe, of having your life pierced from an outside more outside than any before encountered.

It would be an exaggeration and a mistake to call this is a Holocaust movie. It doesn't pretend to have that scope, and it would be unfair to judge it on those terms. It is from beginning to end one man’s story. Even as the details of his father’s trauma slowly reveal themselves, even that story is notably restrained – an obsession of a lifetime borne of a few seconds of a young man’s life. Restraint is in fact the watchword for the movie; Penn’s Cheyenne is so soft-spoken you often have to lean in to actually hear what he is saying.

Filmed on location in Ireland, New York City, Michigan, and several sites in New Mexico, the movie is visually stunning. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi brings a visitor's eye to the American southwest – whether it’s a small town parking lot or Alamogordo, New Mexico’s World's Largest Pistachio – which all comes together to paint the picture a gloriously diverse and contradictory country, both in scenery and in people,. When Cheyenne finally catches up with his father’s persecutor (played with startling intensity by German actor Heinz Lieven), they find themselves standing among Utah’s Salt Flats, the too-bright vista bursting with surreal whiteness in all directions like an alien landscape, a place that would seem to live only in the imagination but somehow can sustain a human population nonetheless.

David Byrne in This Must Be the Place
True to the promise of its title, the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” is repeated several times, its lyrics punctuating the characters' complicated and contradictory yearnings for a home, real or imagined. The song appears on the film’s soundtrack and diegetically, including a tender recorded rendition by a new artist Trevor Green, a live contemporary performance by David Byrne himself (who also contributed to the film’s score), and one touching instance where Cheyenne is serenaded with the song by the young great-grandson of his Nazi target.

The movie of course isn’t perfect. You might think it impossible for a script with so little plot to drop some threads along the way, but it does. We never quite get a satisfactory conclusion to young Mary’s story, and his eventual reunion with his wife (McDormand) is closed down with a dreamlike flash-forward that you'll miss if you blink twice. True to the road movie genre, there are a number of brief and seemingly unrelated encounters littered throughout his journey, and some are perhaps more self-indulgent than others. (Still, keep a special eye out for a wonderful cameo performance by Harry Dean Stanton who comes onscreen to talk about wheeled luggage.)  At its strongest and perhaps also at its weakest, Sorrentino’s film is painterly: more concerned with developing the inner life of its characters than in their actions.

In the end, This Must Be the Place is a story of survival, of living on after traumas, large and small. And, as the film demonstrates time and again, there may be no such thing as a small trauma.  Pain – like a gas – expands to fill the container that holds it. Whatever its flaws, This Must Be the Place is a rare delight. At the film’s midpoint, I wasn’t even sure I liked it, and as the final credits rolled, I knew I loved it. It’s the kind of film that gets right under your skin if you let it, leaving you with a sense of simple joy, buoyed by the film’s odd pacing and its unique story of late-life redemption.