Thursday, November 12, 2015

The best reason for a movie to exist is the pleasure it provides, and by this exacting standard, “By the Sea” is one of Hollywood’s few star-centered successes to have been released this season. It’s a romantic, erotic drama that’s told with an unusual blend of rapture and coldness, of overwhelming yearning and clinical detachment—and, above all, the movie has images that go far beyond the recording of performances and the framing of action in order to make a melancholy and mysterious visual music. The movie was written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt, who stars in it, along with Brad Pitt. At times, it falls short of its ambitious mark, but Jolie Pitt sets the target further and higher than do many far more celebrated filmmakers.
It’s the story of a couple on the rocks, pun intended to suggest the ice cubes in their drinks and the landscape of their conflict. The action takes place some time during the Watergate hearings, in the early nineteen-seventies, in and around a stone-faced, boulder-strewn village on the French Mediterranean coastline (though the filming was actually done in Malta). There, a stylish couple, played by the Pitts, travels in a stylish convertible and moves into a high-ceilinged, decadently decorated room in a gussied-up grand old hotel squeezed into a rugged hillside facing the azure waters.
Misery loves luxury, and the couple, Roland and Vanessa Bertrand, are miserable, both together and apart. They’ve gone to France so that Roland, a blocked writer with a certain erstwhile acclaim, can escape his distractions and get back to writing. Vanessa, a celebrated dancer who has retired from the stage owing, she says, to age, now seems to do very little except berate Roland for his lack of writing and excess of drinking—and even this she does with a lacerating terseness. The silence between them troubles the sociable and desperate Roland even more than do the insults. Vanessa, who holds the strings of their relationship, dangles a mirage of hope before Roland—the possibility of her respecting him again if he gets his work done—even as she does her level best to keep him in a state of scrambling, distracted humiliation.
Roland befriends the elderly, widowed owner (Niels Arestrup) of the café next door. There, Roland has too many drinks and does too little writing and finds new ways to make an ass of himself. What Vanessa does all day while Roland not-writes is less clear—she seems content with little—but when she discovers a literal hole in the wall that lets her peep into the room next door, it gives her a new hobby. Two French newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) have moved into that room, and Vanessa, crouched on the floor, keeps an eye on their sexual frolics. Soon—in the movie’s key moment of self-conscious comedy—Roland joins her in taking in the show. The voyeuristic thrills rejuvenate the unhappy couple’s own sex life—but then they decide to up the ante in their little game.

There’s a lot of fun by the shore for a pair of stars in retro mode. Pitt is done up in the full Warren Oates with a mustache and oversized eyeglasses, and Jolie Pitt reflects the smoldering smoothness of Faye Dunaway, but the underlying models for their roles (not for their performances) are a pair of couples who were the toast of the cinema at the time—John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.
Yet the throwback mood of the film arises from more than just the clothing and the hairstyles and signifies far more than a tribute to a prior age of movie heroes; it’s the very essence of the film. “By the Sea” conjures the mood of erotic recklessness and discovery, along with a sense of loss—a time of heroic feats of self-liberation as well as of centrifugal forces throwing couples into crisis and making the personal dramatically public, of the veneer of glamour yielding to the urge for truth, of personal breakdown under the force of unresisted impulse. “By the Sea” is a sun-hot, sea-cool tale of elegant breakdown, an evocation of a time when liberation was burning out, when those who had driven themselves and others too hard (or had let themselves off too easy) were facing the mirror in the long morning after.
No, the writer and director Jolie Pitt didn’t live through those times; she was born into them, a fact that’s built into the script: Roland’s last name, Bertrand, is her mother’s. The scopophilic scenes and the practicalities issuing from them evoke high-priced, high-society closed-door soirées of refined vice. They hint at private Hollywood diversions of the sort that are conjured in Erich von Stroheim’s resort-town ribaldries “Blind Husbands” and “Foolish Wives,” Charlie Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris,” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and that tie the knot between sex and wealth, between erotic power and worldly power.

The moment of self-aware comedy in the couple’s sexual pastime is important—it’s the moment where the action becomes a literal game, where Jolie Pitt winks at the mechanism, at the artifice of the device that she has set up. In these sex games, the rules are artificial but the stakes are real. Jolie Pitt shows both the silliness of the pursuit and the nerve-baring earnestness of the results, and she admirably sustains the sense of menace and impending ruin, maintaining an apt continuity from the Bertrands’ unhappy sexual chill to the serendipitously perverse thaw.
The movie’s dialogue is sparse and underexplicit, except when it comes to words of cruelty, hatred, and recrimination. Those few but choice words lend an acrid tinge to the seaside air, but they don’t help in the depiction of Roland as a writer; he isn’t just a man of few words but of undistinguished ones. (On the other hand, he fascinatingly seems stifled—his natural bonhomie is the victim, perhaps even the prime target, of Vanessa’s poisoned barbs.) Pitt and Jolie Pitt fit the roles well, but they don’t bring idiosyncratic heft to the silence and the stillness. On the other hand, they also avoid (for the most part) the vein-popping outbursts and overexplicit emphases that so often passes for serious acting. Jolie Pitt directs herself and Pitt to downplay the inflections, leaving the inflection to the images, which themselves are sparely inflected. The result is a remarkably unified mood of despair, frustration, and lust—one which itself evokes the movie aesthetic of the times without miming the work of any one filmmaker.

Working with the cinematographer Christian Berger, Jolie Pitt comes up with a widescreen palette of sun-braced blue and films it as if with the camera eye held wide open to take in the full measure of glaring pain, to provide a coldly unblinking gaze on the couple’s quietly destructive rage—yet also to enjoy with pride the movie’s confessional anguish. Jolie Pitt appears not to forget that she and Pitt are playing a double role, as celebrities in an art film, and there are shots in the film that display this awareness as if they were posters. At such moments of self-magnification, Jolie Pitt and Pitt seem to shrink within their roles rather than fill and expand them. Yet the trouble may entirely be due to the burden of celebrity itself; they may have spent too much time in the spotlight of others to be entirely at ease within their own. (They may also have spent too much time in the land of unlimited resources; some of the props may as well still have their price tags on them.)
Nonetheless, despite its several selfies in the land of the art-house, “By the Sea” is a bold and alluring work of unified thought and feeling. Sometimes those feelings rush beyond the director’s control—but that’s because they’re so much stronger than those of many other filmmakers who have nothing to offer but their sense of control. Jolie Pitt dares, and dares herself, to film wild and intimate emotions that, by their intense and primal nature, defy control. Without truncating them on a Procrustean bed of technical mastery, she finds a singularly cinematic tone with which to yield to them, to yield herself up to them. “By the Sea” is far from a perfect work, even far from a great one; but it’s a distinctive one; it’s a composed movie, not mere pictures of actors acting, which already puts it far ahead of many of the year’s presumptive Oscarizables.

Matt Patches

Celebrities live under microscopes. Angelina Jolie Pitt and her husband Brad live under the Hubble. They are stars—a rare entity. Since a high-profile tryst ten years ago, the couple professed their love, grew a family, and became the Hollywood alternative to the Obamas—perfect and progressive. Tabloids are obsessed. When they adopt a child, we know. When they fly to Africa to defend social justice, we know. When they wed in a secret ceremony, after years of insisting an on-paper union wasn’t vital (a proclamation tethered to the marriage equality issue, of course), we knew. Paparazzi stage SEAL Team 6 operations to snag a few photos of husband and wife, be it on the streets of Los Angeles or on set in Esztergom. The public picks up every headline, through gossip check-ins or grocery store osmosis. The Pitts read them, too.

By the Sea, Jolie Pitt’s third outing as a director, is Bradgelina confronting that decade’s worth of Bradgelinisms. A throwback to Euro-art movies from the 1970s (i.e. those erotic, monochrome pictures you saw through half-sleepy eyes in your one college film class), By the Sea stars Angelina and Brad as a beautiful pair dressed in beautiful clothing who fly away to beautiful Malta. The classic sports cars and catalog-worthy apparel make them look like, well, movie stars. But—twist!—life sucks. Brad’s Roland is an alcoholic writer struggling to pound out a new novel. Angelina’s Vanessa, a once-successful dancer, stews in memories of her past and pops pills to forget the present. No amount of chardonnay will save these two. If the trip doesn’t end in straight up murder, the film suggests Italy’s craggily cliffs will convince them to pull a Virginia Woolf.

Like their fictional counterparts, Brad and Angelina arrive to the quaint bungalow with baggage, aware of what we all whisper about them. To step down from blockbusterdom to a scope where intimacy and coarse emotion can flourish, Jolie Pitt, who wrote the script, riffs on her publicized private life. Did you indulge in recent rumors of the perfect couple’s potential divorce? Well, here’s your fucking wish. In By the Sea, mommy and daddy snip, slap, and sob away their golden facades. Evident in the stilted performances, this is not something the two experience on a regular basis. Maybe the couple does float vacant through creative malaise. But off-screen is a lovefest. “As artists we wanted something that took us out of our comfort zones,” Jolie Pitt explained in an interview with Vogue. “Just being raw actors. It’s not the safest idea. But life is short.”

Yet By the Sea is deeply personal. The escapade starts with acknowledgement that the director and her husband star are cut from marble; most of the film’s first half hour intercuts picturesque shots of linen-draped Brad sipping whiskey and Angelina sunbathing against blue water. A hot French couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) moving into the room next door provokes Roland and Vanessa. It’s the old Hollywood tale: out with the old, in with the ingenue. An uncovered peephole to the younger pair’s room turns the neighbors into aroused spies. Jolie Pitt is the woman who gushed about ravenous sex to Barbara Walters. Would we be surprised to learn her and Brad enjoy a good porn once in awhile? Watching two slinky Parisians screw is the rare moment when By the Sea lightens up, cranks up the heat, and abrades the melodrama.

Jolie Pitt takes it a step further. Like a pointillist painting, By the Sea’s plot twist are dots with lines tracing back to her own timeline. The way Vanessa wallows in a sense of incompleteness, the way Jolie Pitt lingers upon her own reconstructed, bare breasts, traces back to her preventative double mastectomy in 2013, and the follow-up removal of her ovaries two years later. There’s no guessing; the a-ha moment comes when a book cover reveals Roland’s surname: Bertrand, the maiden name of Jolie Pitt’s late mother, who died from cancer and inspired the actress to go under the knife. Famous people resist such blatancy. By the Sea puts it all out there.

What Jolie Pitt can’t do is wrangle it all. The one thing the director and her husband aren’t aware of how mega-fame dilutes the riskiest intentions. This wasn’t a problem in their first team-up, 2005's Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In the assassin-vs.-assassin showdown, a steamy, illicit chemistry amplified action. Jolie Pitt wrote By the Sea to be raw, but really, it’s just serious. The pair can’t be themselves, so they play types. They’re unsure how normal people function in existential situations, so they gamble on 100 years of movies to do the talking. They don’t make every necessary sacrifice to express this harrowing, relatable life experience. They’re public figures with public reputations to uphold. Being enigmatic makes them bankable, often electric actors. You don’t play Maleficent when people know the real you.

The worst decision in By the Sea is casting, yet it’s hard to fault the Pitts. The Hollywood machine leaves little room for passion projects. The duo used A-list star power to realize a movie no studio executive would ever willingly release.

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