Cannes (Official Selection) – We've all seen the on-set pics of Sean Penn looking like an overgrown goth, now we finally get the chance to run the rule over Paolo Sorrentino's English-language debut. We, in the latter case, meaning Paul Martin, 'cause he's the bloke that's reviewing it, like.
As the house lights went up in the Grand Théâtre Lumière last Monday morning, signalling the close of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (the boos, incidentally, had already begun by that juncture, one especially loud hater having been so incensed at having such a keenly-anticipated movie for free and before everyone else, that he couldn't even contain his outrage till the darn thing had actually finished), it was difficult to conceive that any other film in this year's main competition at Cannes could be either as beautiful or as sprawling.
It was certainly just about impossible to imagine that any other film in this year's main competition at Cannes that starred Sean Penn could be either as beautiful or as sprawling (if we dignify Penn's jumped-up cameo in Tree of Life with the term 'starring'). Why, that latter scenario seemed about as probable as the director of a Kirsten Dunst flick landing himself in the soup on account of a sorely misjudged Nazi comedy riff.
Well, as it turns out, lightning hasn't struck twice. Lars von Foot-in-mouth might've been run out of town by the Cannes sheriff, but Malick's cinematic attempt to locate the personal within a universal framework remains the most grandiose Penn picture of the 2011 festival. Having said that, Paolo Sorrentino's This Must be the Place, a sometimes gorgeous, oft-untidy road movie in which Penn stars as a depressed pop star (part-Robert Smith, part-little old lady), lays a far stronger claim to that, perhaps-dubious, accolade than most would have expected.
Sorrentino's movies to date have been stylish character studies, portraits of at least partially reprehensible men, where quirkiness and swish camera work have tended to reign with the all-pervading sway of Montezuman deities. The stories were recounted via small episodes and little details, rather than relentlessly driving narrative strands, such as in The Consequences of Love, when Toni Servillo's smack-addled accountant wiles away his life in a hotel bar, or The Family Friend, which finds Giacomo Rizzo's money-lending homunculus fretting over his supposedly migraine-curing bandage.
There can be no question as to whether This Must be the Place delivers the showy camera moves we've come to expect from Sorrentino. The Italian's surrogate eye seems to be forever in motion, active like a restless child, smooth as a ballroom dance floor. Dipping and rising as Penn's Cheyenne and his firefighter wife, Jane (Frances McDormand), play handball in the empty swimming pool of his Dublin mansion (the pool deprived of water being used as an image of modern malaise, as it is in J.G. Ballard's Myths of the Near Future). And when Cheyenne has embarked on his US road trip, we (embodied in the camera) find ourselves swiftly descending into a blue pool, this one filled with water, plunging below the surface, as waitress Rachel (Kerry Condon) paddles, clad in a fire engine red bikini.
Such images are not simply infused with the constructed imperiousness of an '80s magazine spread, they are also peppered with ambiguities. For example, the sudden appearance of a bison near the end of the movie – is this linked to Cheyenne's brief encounter with a silver-haired native American? The old geezer suddenly appears in the ex-popster's pick-up truck, before mysteriously absconding into the wilderness just a few filmic minutes later.
Sometimes the visuals dazzle. On plenty of occasions, though, it feels as if they might be distracting from the dramatic content. They can even do both within the same elaborate shot, such as when Sorrentino opens on a woman sat next to a lamp, as the Talking Heads song which gives his movie its title plays. Pan out and we find ex-Heads main man David Byrne and his band duly playing away, while the woman and the scene around her begin to rise and tilt, all apparently part of an elaborate stage routine. As the song draws to a close, the camera spins round, past the appreciative crowd, before honing in on the watching Cheyenne. It is all technically mavellous, but also undeniably indulgent. As indeed is the following scene in which Byrne cameos as himself, and earns a plug for his most recent art-music wheeze – 'playing' a building as a musical instrument.
In between these spectacular tableaus, the movie delivers more humour that you might expect, primarily in the early, Ireland-set sequences, where the comedy veers dangerously close towards the broadness that characterised Venice 2010 contender, The Passion, a small town farce co-penned by Umberto Contarello, the writing partner of Sorrentino here. Some gags hit the mark though; the rapid patter of New Yorker Ernie Ray (Shea Wigham fulfilling that Coens-esque cameo, a light contrast to the same actor's role in Critics' Week winner, Take Shelter), and the agreeable goofiness of Jane. Even the Nazi-hunter in this story, Mordecai Midler, is played by a sitcom legend, Taxi's Judd Hirsch.
Nazi-hunter? Yes, having been in retirement in for a quarter-century, Cheyenne finally rouses himself in a bid to track down the concentration camp guard who served as a long-term obsession for his late father. This is a tale of catharsis and redemption, as Consequences of Love and The Family Friend were in their own ways, with atonement for the pain of the past being sought in unlikely places.
Attempting to provide emotional anchor for Sorretino's neo-cinéma du look is that man Penn, with the double Oscar-winner giving a turn that is likely to divide critics, mainly due to the baggage of his past parts. It is a surprising showing from the American star, not just in terms of his look – Roc's nest of black hair, lipstick and eyeliner permanently daubed on his face – but also voice, with Penn's tones rarely rising above a halting, tremulous whisper. It is a brave performance at the heart of a film which does not want for confidence. This Must be the Place will frustrate and baffle some, for sure, but it will dazzle and delight just as many, if not more.
Rating on a scale of 5 artistic jollies: 4
Release date: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino
Screenplay by: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello
Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Eve Hewson
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running Time: 118 minutes