Monday, December 7, 2015

It may star the director and her husband, but this drama about a failing marriage has an ambition that deserves respect

I’ll admit it: my expectations were in the basement, and my pen was sharpened for a lively evening of ripping By The Sea, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s third film as director, to pretty little confetti-like shreds. But then I saw the movie, variously described in the critical onslaught that greeted its release as a mobile fashion-spread; a bad pastiche of Antonioni-esque ennui; a dramatically inert vanity project for two married stars playing two married leads; and much else and worse besides.

They weren’t all wrong. The pacing is slow in the beginning but it does pick up. One may chuckle at the stately parade of obsolete cigarette brands smoked on screen; the ominous shift from a card game for two players, to bataille, for three, portending marital conflict ahead; or the screaming obviousness of a bright scarlet Olivetti Valentine typewriter among the final shots (a moment I loved). But, as Jolie Pitt takes her time with a slo-mo narrative striptease concerning what’s gone wrong with this marriage, and how the happy newlywed couple in the next room – there’s a peephole – might help save it, one has time to ponder what kind of movie she thinks she’s making.

You’ll spend time wondering who Vanessa (Angelina) and Roland (Brad) remind you of. Are they Jane and Paul Bowles? Is he James Salter and she Anne Sexton? Are they Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, vacationing in Hawaii in 1968 to rescue their relationship? And then there are the movies Jolie Pitt may be drawing on. Think of Two For The Road on quaaludes, minus the road, or The Comfort Of Strangers with no bloodshed. Or think of Three, the one movie directed by James Salter himself, a forgotten 1969 French road-trip/menage a trois with Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston, based on a story by his friend and fellow second world war vet Irwin Shaw. Roland and Vanessa are of that Salter-Shaw-James Jones generation of postwar US exiles, spending high-value dollars on the cheap luxuries of southern Europe.

By The Sea has a lot in common with an unofficial genre I think of as Euro-Scenery-Tourist movies, broad enough to contain Roman Holiday, Bonjour Tristesse, To Catch A Thief, all the movies I named above, plus maybe even The Day Of The Jackal. All were nostalgic – even as they were being made – for the era before the cheap package holidays of the mid 60s, when the southern part of Europe was still a vacationer’s wild west. By The Sea throws some Sylvia Plath and Antonioni-lite into the mix, even a little Bilitis-era David Hamilton in its softcore sexuality. But, in the end, it’s a sturdy enough backdrop for this fragile and finally rather absorbing experiment.

That’s not to say Jolie Pitt has made a great movie yet, but her work is solidifying into something weightier, more graspable, more admirable.

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