Thursday, November 12, 2015

By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 12, 2015 at 10:00AM

In "By the Sea," the quietly serene marital drama directed by Angelina Jolie that opens this week, the world's most famous actress casts herself alongside her equally famous husband, Brad Pitt, in a sub-Cassavetes drama in which they struggle to repair their relationship during an ill-fated European vacation. Gorgeously shot against the French coast, "By the Sea" aspires to portray a fictional couple in the throes of heated marital issues, the full extent of which only emerge in the half-hearted finale.

Instead, "By the Sea" inevitably foregrounds the lingering appeal of Brangelina, with the real-life couple's faces framed in gorgeous closeups for much of the protracted running time. As an alcoholic writer with withered features that say more than he can, Pitt does his part to deglamorize his appearance. But there's no point in "By the Sea" when Angelina Jolie looks like anyone but Angelina Jolie.

Whether floating in the bathtub with a distant look — breasts bobbing, mascara running wild — or curled fetal on the floor as drunken Brad throws a tantrum, Jolie's cinematic identity is inextricably tied to our understanding of her real one. As Pitt says mournfully during one of several ambling sessions at the local bar when he dons his best French accent, "ooo-la-la, what a body."

Things get rough for the warring couple, but they're still gorgeous, romantic bodies hurtling through a lusciously rendered period piece. The scenario is too pretty for pathos to sink in.

Of course, this celebrity monolith doesn't exist in a vacuum, and to the extent that "By the Sea" takes on certain meta qualities, the pair must have known those connotations would exist. If the movie is a vanity project, it's also explicitly about vanity — the frustrating task of attempting to lead a happy life against impossible odds. Rather than commenting on their own privileged existence, Jolie and Pitt ostensibly turn the tables by portraying the same obsessive tendencies that surround their fame.

In a key plot development, which leads to the movie's best scenes, the couple discover a hole in the wall of their hotel room where they spy on a younger, happier couple next door (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). Their idyllic existence turns out to be misleading, but it also provides the older couple with a handy escape from their own troubles. The fantasy of experiencing someone else's private moments overtakes them. It's a decidedly modern concept: From childhood, we're told not to stare, which only heightens the appeal of getting away with it. Now you can do it more than ever. Just as they peep, we watch Shia LaBeouf. What's he doing now?

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