By the Sea

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Angelina Jolie-Pitt

Starring

Angelina Jolie-Pitt Brad Pitt Niels Arestrup

Anticipation.

The tide of opinion is certainly against By the Sea being any good.

Enjoyment.

Sweet sincerity. Jolie-Pitt can make a movie.

In Retrospect.

Let’s hope she doesn’t go back to the prestige awards movies.

As a director, writer and performer, Angelina Jolie-Pitt has finally come into her own.

There is nothing better than seeing a movie which forces you to question the essential role of the film critic. The classic mode of this scholarly pursuit is to string together binary deductions of how certain elements ascribe to a personal barometer of good or bad. If a bond of trust has been forged between critic and reader, then that’s a mode which can work like gangbusters.

But what else could we search for in a movie? And that word “search” is vital, as it infers that we shouldn’t just be clinically inspecting the glistening façade and racking up the barbs/plaudits as applicable. By and large, film critics aren’t psychologists, but sometimes we need to pretend to be. We’re quacks, operating without portfolio, but (often) with noble intent. There are generous odds that our patients will not take our words with too much heed and, say, hightail it to the nearest suspension bridge for a date with destiny (side note: can movies commit suicide?). But what we write should demonstrate a cursory grappling with a movie’s motives as well as what we see, hear and feel.

On those terms, Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s By the Sea is a fascinating work. It’s more a dolorous guessing game than a movie. As writer and director, she teases the viewer with the question: why am I here doing this? What’s in it for me? Unquestionably, this is an example of an artist baring her soul, revealing her secrets, discharging her bottled-up despair, and deconstructing her image as high Tinseltown royalty.

But is she doing so in a bid for sympathy or as an act of petty narcissism? It’s sad that so many have dismissed the film as a vanity project, something that Jolie-Pitt needed to get out of her system rather than a tantalising entertainment for the masses. But yes, you do get that she has made this film as a way to extricate herself from certain anxieties about being a middle-aged women locked within a patriarchal system.

The film’s hard feminist credentials are even sewn in to its poster, as Jolie-Pitt has decided to adopt the surname of her husband, while Pitt retains his own name. This disparity in gender expectations is mirrored in the film’s plot, a ’70s-set psychodrama in which a pair of embittered but unfailingly pretty New Yorkers take a break in a small French costal bolthole in order for him (Pitt’s Roland) to write a novel, and for her (Jolie-Pitt’s Nessa) to splay herself on a sun-lounger, read bad books and wait for him to come home each day.

The very first action to occur in the film is Roland, while navigating his soft-top Citroen along perilous mountainside passes, attempting to light a cigarette. Yet, there’s no spark left for him to do so. The pair pull-up at a seafront bistro, run by Niels Arestrup’s affable Michel. They down some drinks, then set up camp in a luxury hotel. Without ever being too blunt about the fact, it’s clear there’s something off balance in this relationship. There’s no physicality or sensuality between the pair, and neither seem particularly happy to have arrived at this gorgeous, sun-soaked arcadia.

Jolie-Pitt’s oppressive focus on the hot-cold dynamics of a putrefying marriage between two beautiful, middle-aged artists has drawn comparisons to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. And this contrast attains further credence in its setting, which lightly resembles the early segments of Antonioni’s modernist classic, L’Avventura. But there’s an anthropological intent to Antonioni’s films, a suggestion that he’s making statements about people for whom he feels little affinity. This is nakedly personal filmmaking, more in line with movies by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard or Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Shades of Roman Polanski crop up as well, not least in Nessa’s physical and psychological resemblance to Catherine Deneuve’s Carol from Repulsion, pom-pom bangs and all. With the aid of Michael Haneke’s regular cinematographer, Christian Berger, Jolie-Pitt makes exemplary use of the film’s setting, a picture-postcard cove which looks out to a sea of infinite possibility, but which is, in this instance, made constricting and claustrophobic by Nessa’s state of incurious apathy. Both she and Roland self-medicate whenever possible, and the film offers a stinging indictment of the ritual of men going out working and women staying in homemaking.

The arbitrary fluctuations in Roland and Nessa’s rapport mirror a rugged reality rather than any inflexible dramatic construct or some over-reaching metaphor. So yes, the plot is more a random collection of details than a simple daisy-chain of events. The issue which is causing all of this pain and frustration remains the elephant in the room until the film’s final stretch, but when it is revealed, it’s poignant rather than sensational – anticlimactic in the best possible way.

Jolie-Pitt’s previous two directorial efforts – 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey and 2014’s Unbroken – were perhaps not the best precursors to By the Sea, and it’s understandable how many would have feared the worst of this new project. But this is stratospheres ahead of its forebears, in the detail of its construction and the intimate nature of its emotional battleground. She may have talked about herself, her passions and her aspirations in press interviews and profiles, but in By the Sea, she tells us that there’s no uniform human response to a tragedy. Everyone deals with things (or maybe choses not to?) in their own way.

The fact that this film has been so widely dismissed is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women in the film industry aren’t taken as seriously as men. Yet whatever you think about how it has been made or what it is saying, its sincerity is unassailable. With By the Sea, Jolie-Pitt achieves something far greater and more courageous than formal refinement or routine dramatic consistency: she admits to us that she’s extremely sad, and does so in a way which makes us believe her.

Published 12 Dec 2015

Anticipation.

The tide of opinion is certainly against By the Sea being any good.

Enjoyment.

Sweet sincerity. Jolie-Pitt can make a movie.

In Retrospect.

Let’s hope she doesn’t go back to the prestige awards movies.

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