The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
This Must Be the Place

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article

The less we say about it the better.

Make it up as we go along.

Feet on the ground, head in the sky.

It’s OK, I know nothing’s wrong … Nothing…

- 'This Must be the Place (Naïve Melody)', The Talking Heads

'Indulgent' is a funny word. What happens when a filmmaker becomes indulgent? By which we usually mean self-indulgent. This Must be the Place feels indulgent - is indulgent; but then again, aren’t all filmmakers, in their own way? Michael Haneke, you could say. Haneke doesn’t appear to indulge us - he scorns us, puts us through the mill. But doesn’t that too also indulge a certain masochistic delight? Watching a Haneke film (and I say this as an admirer) is the equivalent of taking the sticking plaster off slowly, slowly, slowly.

The genesis of This Must Be the Place has a dream-come-true-quality which perhaps influences the reception of the film. Sean Penn was heading the jury at Cannes which awarded Sorrentino’s Il Divo (2008) the Jury Prize, and asked to be involved in Sorrentino’s next project. With a major Hollywood player in place (not to mention one of the finest actors of his generation), and an opportunity to reach an enormous audience, why wouldn’t you decide to overegg the cake basket? Not just to make an American film, but to make a film about America, that tries to include all of America. In aiming for this, Sorrentino follows in the footsteps of other European directors such as Werner Herzog (I’m thinking particularly of Stroszek [1977]) and Wim Wenders, whose Paris, Texas (1984) sets about getting to the heart of America from a European perspective. Harry Dean Stanton also turns up in Sorrentino’s film, one of many self-conscious nods.

Of course, there are alternative career paths. He could have become a jobbing technician like Wolfgang Petersen. Or perhaps aspire to the almost parodic excess of Paul Verhoeven, who sometimes seems dedicated to force-feeding an American audience their own fatty crap. Sorrentino’s compatriot, Gabriel Muccino, was handed a comparable opportunity to break into English language cinema with the support of an extremely bankable star (Will Smith), and the resulting film was a bloodless big screen soap opera. But then again, so are Muccino’s Italian films.

In Sorrentino’s film, there seems little urge to appease a wider audience. This isn’t a grab at commercial acceptance, or pandering. It is as visually stunning as Il Divo and as stylish as Consequences of Love (2004). The colours are gorgeous (there’s a blue rubber duck that is a particular highlight) and the camera is fluid and inventive. There are bravura shots which bring to mind Welles and his train set analogy, especially the musical set piece. In a review, Simon Miraudo compared watching the film as being akin to ‘watching someone sprint into the ocean with the firm belief that they can make it to the other side before running out of breath.’

The subject matter is obviously close to Sorrentino’s heart. Cheyenne is a Robert Smith-like star, someone who exists from a previous era - when celebrity didn’t mean ‘Get me Out of Here’, but was angst-ridden, troubled, self-questioning, but also flamboyant and silly. Sorrentino and Penn get much comic mileage out of the character. At once childlike and knowing, innocent and guilt-ridden, a musician without music. When he splashes a group of German tourists in a fit of hung-over pique he jumps out of the car to tell them: ‘I apologise but it’s only right you know that I did that on purpose.’ Aside from the comedy, the hair-blowing, the voice and the laugh, Cheyenne is also a song of experience. He is the B-side. His fragile gait hints at the ex-junkie, and his wisdom seems informed by a life already lived and to some extent worn out. When he meets David Byrne (playing himself in the most indulgent scene of the film), he gives a self-appraisal that is striking both for its accuracy and vehemence. He is a man who in the shopping aisles of Dublin and in front of the mirror, back-teasing his hair, has spent much time in thought. His ability to win over almost everyone he encounters comes from a kind of fearless straightforwardness. When asked by a heavily tattooed man in a bar whether he likes tattoos, Cheyenne answers slowly and thoughtfully, ‘I was just asking myself the same question. I haven’t decided yet.’

There is a sense that he takes the world seriously even as it proves itself at times much more ridiculous than he is - for instance, in the school mistress who scolds him for dressing up, but keeps a goose called Emily. Of course, seriousness comes with his father’s death and even more so with the introduction of the Holocaust. This has perhaps caused the most consternation. The shift in tone from the whimsy of a superannuated Goth with a silly wheelie bag mooching around Dublin, to his involvement in the hunt for his father’s Nazi tormentor in Auschwitz, jars - or perhaps more accurately doesn’t jar enough. In fact, the tone barely changes at all. This is something that the film to some extent addresses: the changing status of the Holocaust in our collective consciousness.

From Shoah (1985) to Schindler’s List (1993), the Holocaust has received varied treatments. There have even been Holocaust comedies in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) and Train de Vie (Radu Mihaileanu, 1998). Although Brian Singer got a critical shellacking for Apt Pupil (1998), his ‘use’ of the Holocaust for what was essentially backstory in X-Men (2000) passed without notice. Despite days of remembrance and solemn vows never to forget, forgetting will almost certainly take place, and many in the film see Cheyenne’s new mission as Quixotic rather than vital. Even Mordecai Midler, the Nazi hunter played by Judd Hersch, who aids Cheyenne in his mission, admits to being trapped in 1944, the way Cheyenne is trapped in his own history. Midler is interested in the teeth: the victims, like Cheyenne’s father, are dying off, as are the tormentors.

Although by no means equivalent, the film explores another, similar tenacity in holding onto the past even as everyone else forgets it. Cheyenne will ultimately ‘move on’, it is true. He will relinquish his former identity and, with his father dead and business taken care of, will grow up and get his hair cut. The loose ends are not all taken care of and there are bumps in the road, but I enjoyed the ride.

Home is where I want to be,

But I guess I’m already there.

I come home - she lifted up her wings

Guess that this must be the place.

This Alternate Take was published on April 22, 2012.

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