Thursday, December 3, 2015

Watching Couples Watch Couples: Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt in By the Sea.

When I initially saw the trailer for By the Sea, Angelina Jolie’s latest foray into directing, I admit to being intrigued. I had questions: What was happening in this pretty but rather vague series of images? Why don’t they speak? Is that glamorous Angelina lying murdered on a luxurious carpet?! At the behest of logic and reason, I shelved these thoughts for a while until the synopsis caught me by surprise while I was browsing the local movie listings. It was something murky about “an American couple in the 1970s” retreating to a quiet seaside town to focus on their troubled marriage. It was maybe a line or two, and it told me nothing. Immediately, I fell for it. I was confident that I’d be sitting down to some weird, hushed noir film, a tale of love gone wrong culminating in a crime of passion. Readers, I was wrong.

By the Sea, as it turns out, is exactly what it’s billed as. Its advertising is vague because there is genuinely nothing else to be said about it. Bourgeois American spouses Vanessa and Roland Bertrand (played, of course, by Jolie and husband Brad Pitt) drive forever in the opening credits and arrive at a hotel on the coast of France to stay for the summer. Vanessa is a former dancer who has blossomed into an impossibly elegant but surly lady of leisure. Roland is an allegedly famous novelist who has reached the point in his career where his full-time occupation seems to be getting plastered with an open notebook in front of him. Their marriage is on the rocks for some (really disappointing, not-worth-this-level-of-drama) reason that isn’t revealed until the film’s final act and they are miserable together. Jolie and Pitt do a great job of making the audience uncomfortable but, 20 minutes into the film, we’ve gotten the point: they are unhappy. Unfortunately, By the Sea wants to hammer this idea to death and it continues to do so for what feels like ages instead of moving on to literally anything else.

At the resort, Roland and Vanessa meet a handful of interesting characters. The bar Roland retreats to while avoiding his ghastly wife is owned and operated by a charming elderly man named Michel (Neils Arestrup) who serves Roland whatever he wants, kicks him out when he’s too drunk to function, and provides stereotypical sage-like advice all while pining for his dead wife. Arestrup is a brief respite from the rest of the film’s awful characters, but his role as a foil for the film’s crappy married people is laughably obvious. So much so that when Roland catches Michel in a private moment holding a black and white photo of his beloved late wife, I actually laughed – like a monster – and I somehow feel that was not the intended reaction.

More significant than the Bertrands' relationship with Michel’s “marriage Dumbledore” figure is their intense obsession (I hesitate to call it friendship) with the young, attractive newlyweds who stay in the room next door. Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall separating the two suites and eventually ropes Roland into engaging in a little amateur voyeurism that takes up the middle of the film. The hole is presented as a window into the past, directly contrasting the Bertrands' present day shambles of a marriage with the assuredly happy days they spent together when they were first wed fourteen years ago, although I have a hard time to believing these two people could have ever been as happy and naïve as neighbours Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupard) appear to be. The introduction of this element is where the film could have gone in some really interesting directions. A movie about Vanessa and Roland repairing their broken marriage by reconnecting over the shared experience of spying on the happy neighbours would have been somewhat better. Of course, that’s not how By the Sea operates. There are some really interesting, though somewhat muffled, explorations of the interplay between longing and jealousy (as Vanessa does token crazy wife things like asking Roland if he wants to have sex with Lea, being really into the idea, and then raging at him the next morning for even thinking about it) but the film fails to resolve these ideas. It merely presents them, and moves on.

Melvil Poupaud and Mélanie Laurent in By the Sea.

What I can say about By the Sea in the way of praise is that it’s aesthetically beautiful. Jolie takes what is often considered to be an ugly decade and pulls out all its forgotten glamour. If the film were a Vogue photo shoot, it would be excellent. Jolie looks impossibly stunning in full makeup and blown out hair (how does she do it every morning and why?), oozing ennui as she drapes herself over the furniture in a series of bored rich housewife nightgowns and robes. The landscapes are gorgeous, and the hotel, or what little we see of it as the hotel scenes are largely restricted to the claustrophobia of the Bertrands' suite, is airy and luxurious. It’s a tragedy that the storytelling didn’t live up to the costuming and set design.

Ultimately, By the Sea is exactly what the better parts of my brain thought it was when I first loved and hated the trailer: it is truly, in all regards, the pinnacle of banal vanity projects. It’s tempting to criticize the writer for penning such a shallow, horrible character as Vanessa Bertrand until you remember that the writer is Angelina Jolie. I respect Jolie for being no one’s victim; she played a poorly written female character with no depth or humanity but she wrote it and cast herself. What is a little more complicated to consider is that Angelina cast her husband as the more interesting, relatable character who closes out the film by saying he’s going to write his novel about his wife; it’s a film she wrote about a man writing a novel about her – and then she and that man filmed it and produced it.

In general, I don’t find Angelina Jolie to be a bad director (Unbroken), writer (In the Land of Blood and Honey) or actress. While I’m not crazy about celebrities, she and Brad Pitt even seem like perfectly alright people. For these reasons, I struggle to understand what possessed her to make this film and what exactly she was trying to get at. Were the Jolie-Pitts just bored and wanting to frolic around on camera for a while, looking fancy for their fans? I don’t know but Vanessa and Roland are so empty, so vapid and unlikeable, that I hope for Brad and Angelina’s sakes that By the Sea isn’t a case of art imitating life. If you’ve ever been in a relationship that’s circling the drain and decided to hang on for some totally illogical reason, that’s pretty close to what this film feels like. If it weren’t for my regrettable determination to review the piece, I would have left halfway through; as it was, I spent the entire screening playing chair parkour, shifting in my seat from one contorted position to another with my mouth hanging open like I just had a lobotomy, trying to make it to the end.

If you like 70s fashion, are considering a divorce and looking for inspiration, or are into watching couples that are married in real life have fake sex on screen, then By the Sea is a great time. For everyone else, though, I made this error in judgment for you. You’re welcome. Now if anyone could also send me back my $13 and those two hours of my life as a show of gratitude, that would be much appreciated.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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