Written and Directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt / Starring Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud
Roland: Well Vanessa, looks like you ruined a perfectly good marriage.
When Angelina Jolie Pitt decided to move from acting to directing feature films back in 2011, the announcement was immediately met with criticism. Her third feature film, BY THE SEA, has been yet another opportunity for critics to set themselves on attack mode and meticulously tear her new movie apart from beginning to end. And to be fully transparent, I don’t read reviews of films I am reviewing, but with so much negative talk of this film, I just had to know what others were saying about it. Don’t worry; I won’t get into that here. I may stand alone with this one, but truthfully I enjoyed BY THE SEA, despite it’s flaws and the obvious shortcomings, it shows a directorial strength which her last two films did not.
BY THE SEA opens with a beautiful shot of the Malta landscape on a sun filled day. A blue convertible maneuvers the winding road and its driver, Roland (Brad Pitt) fumbles to find a lighter for his cigarette. Beside him, his wife (Jolie) watches him and offers no help. Immediately we can tell what is inferred by this silent moment and the lack of engagement: this couple isn’t doing so well. The lack of dialogue sets the tone for the remainder of the film, as there is very little of it, which works to both the disadvantage of the movie, and a strong point as the visual acting talents of both Pitt and Jolie are able to come through.
The couple arrive at the hotel, still not speaking; they settle into their room and Roland points to a table. Without a word exchanged, they rearrange the furniture, setting up the desk and typewriter to face the stunning blue sea. As the days begin to unfold, again mostly in silence, we learn that he is a writer trying to pump out his next work, and their marriage is in trouble. She seems to be suffering from some sort of loss, but we don’t quite figure that out until the very last act. As Roland spends his days getting drunk at the bar near by while attempting to work on his book, Vanessa lounges about their hotel room, popping pills, drinking wine and watching as a boat goes out every morning and returns every evening.
One day, Vanessa finds a small opening in the hotel wall, which looks into the room next to theirs where a young newlywed couple (Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent) are spending their honeymoon, and she begins to watch them, even during their most intimate moments. The two couples eventually befriend one another, spending time together playing cards, going sailing and then having dinners. But Vanessa’s devious mind has other plans, not only as a means of lashing out at her own marriage, but also as an attack on someone younger than her.
The story and the dialogue is what is getting the most attention for it’s vapid execution, and it would be easy to dissect it, and comment on it’s lack of depth. Even its blatant metaphors for routine, the comments on marriage and longevity begin to get tiresome, but never bothersome. It may be easy to draw a comparison to WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? in that it is a claustrophobic examination of two marriages, but that is about where the comparison ends. BY THE SEA looks close (but not too closely) at intimacy and bereavement, from the perspective of a couple who know each other so well, where nothing is hidden. It is also the reason for the lack of dialogue between the two. Not only are things tough between them, but the two don’t need to speak at times to understand one another. This, however, works incredibly well as the two stars are a real life couple, and that intimate knowledge comes though here. In fact, it is evident throughout the entire film.
However, what does work for this movie is the overall style of the film. Jolie Pitt is clearly channelling the early works of Polanski, Goddard and Truffaut in her 1970’s set film which is vibrant, colourful and meticulously costumed. Every visual element in the film, from the cinematography to the set pieces and design is, in one word, stunning. Every shot looks as if it were taken from an editorial spread from Vogue magazine, and having been on five covers now, Jolie is no stranger to that. As an actress, she looks as though she were drawing on inspiration from Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot, classic beauties that are iconic of an era. Pitt, in his fedora and sunglasses, looks as though he were wearing a Hunter S. Thompson costume at a halloween party, but nonetheless, both still look impeccable as a wealthy New York couple out to devour those around them.
That said, the characters are a little weak at times. There is surely a lot going on under the surface and only a slight amount of it gets alluded to. We learn that Vanessa was once a dancer, but according to her she “got old”, the subtext of which is the same all women in public careers face, especially Jolie herself. Jolie claims that this is not a personal film, that there is not much of themselves or their marriage in BY THE SEA (ironically it was shot while the two were on their honeymoon). Calling the characters nothing more than caricatures of the real life actors who play them is a failure to see beyond their celebrity status and recognize them for two artists doing their craft. Some people may be looking for an expose of their relationship, but that is nowhere to be found, which is refreshing for those of us who could care less what goes on in their personal lives.
BY THE SEA won’t be loved by everybody, and in fact I would be pleased as punch if anyone, after reading this, is able to take my side on it, but I am going to be honest, I loved this film. The second it was done I wanted to watch it again, to bask in its beautiful sun drenched Mediterranean scenery, to look closer at its subtle nuances, to learn why choices were made over other ones. I know that I am someone often swayed by beauty, by style and aesthetics, but I know that I am not someone who ignores substance. When something doesn’t work, I am aware; I’ve seen enough films to be able to distinguish between things that should work, and things that clearly just don’t , and BY THE SEA, despite its flaws, definitely works, for me anyway. Jolie is going to continue to be heavily criticized for this piece, and part of me wonders if had it been made by a man, would the response have been the same?