As has been repeatedly noted, the first few reviews posted on Rotten Tomatoes from designated Top Critics from Variety, THR, and The Wrap were fairly negative. So I was quite pleasantly surprised when the subsequent reviews I read from the select movie sites I regularly check gave the film passing marks. No raves, but a couple of Bs and 3/5 stars from The Playlist, Slash Film, Guardian, Collider. These are sites with critics just as respected, knowledgeable and discriminating as the critics from the trades and most, if not all, gave Unbroken lower marks. There has also been some push back from writers like Mark Harris against some of the more dismissive comments by the early reviewers.
From her interviews, Angelina clearly expected her film to be very divisive. She said she knew that some people will hate it, that it isn't a commercial film and isn't for everyone. She knew people would find it slow, not fun, and she said the audience will be relieved when it is over -- just as they themselves were. She knew all this about her film but she wanted to release it this way anyway. This uncompromising attitude was noted in many reviews and earned her, the film and Universal some measure of respect and admiration.
I have also repeatedly read that By the Sea is Angelina's best directing performance to-date. That she has continued to improve as a director.
All this has me wondering how the film and its reception will ultimately be viewed.
'By the Sea' beautifully bares all of the Pitt + Jolie persona; @tc4949 reviews https://t.co/UTpcEh6kZI #AFIFEST pic.twitter.com/dfx9Ch3YXL— Collider News (@ColliderNews) November 7, 2015
Much of the power of Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s By the Sea derives from the casting – namely casting Brad Pitt and herself as a bickering, miserable couple. Here are two of the biggest movie stars on the planet and two of the prettiest people (circa People 2000 & 2006 respectively) arguing and fighting and yelling at one other just like everybody else. The thought crosses that if this “Hollywood Power Couple” can’t make it work (albeit fictionally) what hope do the rest of us mere mortals have. By the Sea, at its best, toys with this line of fiction and reality, using whatever preconceived image you have of ‘Angelina Jolie’ or ‘Brad Pitt’ and upending it, laying it bare, revealing the dark angst within. Which isn’t to say By the Sea is a movie about “Brad and Angie”; but about the perception of who you are versus the reality. And, more often than not, that reality is incredibly depressing.
Brad and Angie are Roland and Vanessa, a chilly American couple, who travel to a hotel in the Mediterranean. Roland, a struggling writer dealing with a bout of writer’s block, hopes the ideal French waterfront will provide him with some semblance of inspiration. Vanessa, the far more enigmatic of the two, immediately retreats to the bed of her hotel room, refusing to leave, only stepping outside to the balcony once or twice. The movie plays coy as to the source behind the couple’s estrangement (although any moderately attentive moviegoer can easily surmise what’s up). There in the hotel room, Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall, allowing her to peek into the neighboring room at a recently married French couple (Melanie Laurent & Melvil Poupaud).
There’s not actually much in the way of plot to By the Sea. It’s a movie of lingering images. A five minute-sequence of the couple driving, of walking alongside the beach, of Roland drinking and waxing poetic with a widowed barkeep, of Vanessa staring outside her hotel room at a fisherman rowing into the Ocean alone. At times these images can drift from meaningful to just downright languid, the balance between artsy and pretentious tipping to the latter. The first thirty or so minutes are difficult to get through – but then the film finds a second gear within the sad, aging eyes of its two leads. They hover like ghouls around the nubile young bodies of the beach, watching, inspecting, yearning… It’s not long before the couple is spying through the peephole of their room at the younger couple, ‘their younger selves’. By the Sea contrasts the fading beauty of its two movie stars against the marvelous ocean and bright yellow beach sands. The notion that this place is timeless, unchanging, forever – whereas Roland & Vanessa & Brad & Angie will change and age and fall away into nothing. The sea, though, will remain just as it ever was.
By the Sea doesn’t trust its audience enough. It repeats the same images over and over again. The lone fisherman going out to sea – powerful the first three times, yet tiresome the next three. It’s as if the film expects you to doze off – and so, just in case you missed it, reprises the same images, the same beats, the same arguments – that way you’re all caught up. By the Sea desperately needs to explain itself – scenes toward the end ‘revealing’ the source of the couple’s problems and the significance of the fisherman rowing into the ocean. It’s a film that wants you to understand, to feel what it feels, and for three-fourths it does just that; until it questions if you really get it at all and so it gently sits you down and explains exactly what to feel and what’s been happening the whole time.
It’s a beautiful movie though, elegantly shot and composed, using jump cuts ruthlessly to suggest the passage of time and how quickly happiness can fade. Between her first three films, Jolie-Pitt has proven herself to have an excellent eye and the work she does here with cinematographer Christian Berger (Cache) is a marvel, perfectly recapturing the feel of the seventies Euro-art films.
If By the Sea ultimately fails, it at least does so spectacularly. It’s so earnest and heartfelt that it’s impossible to outright dismiss. There’s so much that works here (Pitt and Jolie are both terrific, the earthy cinematography, the pitch-perfect tone) that when it falters in the end, it doesn’t bother as much as it should. By the Sea works in the larger sense – in dissecting the mythos of its leads, in its fascination with our past selves and in our inability to become who we once were.
Acting with Brad Pitt in By the Sea had quite an effect on Angelina Jolie: https://t.co/12rE7DQDyA pic.twitter.com/HGzaiWU3iE— E! Online (@eonline) November 7, 2015
Today 11:51 AM PST
Angelina Jolie knows that By the Sea may not be for everyone.
The Oscar winner wrote, directed and co-stars in the film with hubby Brad Pitt. Set in the 1970s, they play a married couple (she's a former dancer and he's a writer suffering from writer's block) who travel to a remote hotel in the South of France with hopes of saving their crumbling relationship.
"It's an unusual film," Jolie told me last night at the world premiere of the movie at the AFI presented by Audi film festival in Hollywood. "We tried to be very open and we hope we're allowed to do this kind of a film and people receive it and understand it."
It's been 10 years since Jolie and Pitt appeared in a movie together in Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
"It's very very different than Mr. & Mrs. Smith," Jolie said with a laugh. "It isn't a comedy. It's 10 years after. Anyone who's been married a really long time will understand this movie."
It certainly wasn't always easy playing a couple who at times appear to have more hate between them then love. They kick, hit and push each other throughout the movie.
"It's a very emotional film," Jolie said. "It's very personal and we tear into each other a bit. Even though none of their problems are our problems, we still have our fights. When his voices raises it affects me.
"When I'm crying and we're doing these heavy scenes, you can't be husband and wife," she continued. "You can't go across the room and nurture the other person. You have to stay in your corner and you have to perform and you have to push through."
Pitt agrees. "Our job is to personalize each moment even if it's not our story," he said. "There's no way you can't get a little riled up. That's why it works."
"I think because we're married and we know each other in that way, it just made it more sensitive on set and it made it a little harder to be tough on each other," Jolie added. "But when we went, we went pretty far."
While Pitt admitted there were times that Jolie was "disappointed" with a take or two, he said, "We have this great shorthand, being a couple [and] having time together. Getting to make together was a real thrill."
Pitt gushed, "We know each other so well. To be making something together with the one you love, I can't describe how rewarding it is."
By the Sea is in theaters Nov. 13.