' ' Cinema Romantico: By the Sea

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

By the Sea

If so much of the movie going experience is about escapism then writer/director Angelina Jolie Pitt shrewdly employs that escapism as a weapon against us in “By the Sea.” Her film, explicit in its refusal to explicate, is too long, yet that length feels just right, gradually transforming its otherwise scenic Maltese landscapes intended as the south of France from dazzling to exhausting. The opulent hotel where our central couple spends so much time turns claustrophobic and they smoke so many cigarettes your lungs will start to hurt. Even the picturesque seaside café eventually leaves you wondering if there are any other places to eat. This exhaustion correlates directly to the horse latitudes marriage of Ms. Jolie Pitt and her husband Brad… Er, make that Vanessa and Roland Bertrand.

Beg your pardon if I’ve confused the two but “By the Sea” readily recognizes that fiction mixes liberally with reality, which is precisely why Roland, an author whose writing process involves drinking and bemoaning how he has nothing to write, borrows from his own screwed up existence to concoct what he no doubt hopes will be a book for people to haul along on their own getaways to the south of France. Content to brood, Roland gets a lot of screen time, often opposite Michel (Niels Aerstrup), proprietor the aforementioned café, who seems so in-tune where Roland is so out of tune. Indeed, Roland, for all this writing frustration, is primarily a spectator to his wife’s seemingly slow withdrawal from society.

Played by Jolie Pitt, so often so formidably charismatic, with a voice of severe timidity, Vanessa opts for isolation at every turn, surrounding herself with Chardonnay and pills. If her husband was once a successful writer now blocked, she was once a dancer of some renown, it is implied, who has essentially been forced off the stage, a la Winona Ryder in “Black Swan”, a nod at the dividing line for female actors when they cross the threshold where studio execs look past them and toward someone youthful. And here you sense Jolie Pitt stricken by that idea, wondering what will happen to her when the know-it-alls find another starlet to glom onto, personified in the film's most loopy yet most consequential storyline in which she and her husband find a conveniently placed hole in the wall of their hotel allowing them to voyeuristically peer through at the young newlyweds on honeymoon next door.

The exceptionally attractive newlyweds are Francois, played by Melvil Poupaud, the original Frenchman In A Jaunty Hat, and Lea, played by Melanie Laurent with, if you'll permit me to say, the most regal tan in movie history. Jolie Pitt – er, Vanessa – is instantly jealous of Laurent – er, Lea – and fearful that Roland will trade in for a younger model. Still, Vanessa can't stop peeping, as if looking at herself from the past, seeing what's coming up behind, knowing her future as a glamorous starlet is in peril. Another director might have been more interested in upping the kinky quotient, and while it gets a little kinky, it’s more content to have our bickering lovers take a time out to sit back and watch, and have us sit back and watch them, two levels of voyeurism happening at once.

Yet by employing the device of a faltering marriage to explore her own rightful insecurities about a woman’s place in Hollywood, Jolie Pitt forces herself to resolve the marital issues, and the resolutions here are less than inspired, coming across like placeholders or less interesting ideas culled from other movies. Rather than exploding into batshit metaphysics, like a latter day Antonioni, it settles for a metaphor in the form of a lonely fisherman glimpsed throughout and a revelation so head-shaking predictable in the wake of an opening hour and change that is so unabashedly content not to give a fuck what you think about it.

It’s as if Jolie Pitt has given these ideas a great deal of consideration but reached no conclusion herself, and so she simply conjured one up out of spare narrative parts. That marks “By the Sea” as a less than successful movie, sure, but there is still something intriguing about it overall. Some have, and more will, discount this as a vanity project, and fair enough, but what is art if not a working through, and Jolie Pitt seems to be working through her own anxieties on screen. And if “By the Sea” does not offer answers to the questions she’s asking, I think it’s because she doesn’t actually have them, which might suggest she shouldn’t have made the movie. But the search is oh so compelling.

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