A vintage convertible zips along vertiginous roads atop sunbaked white cliffs to a grooving ‘60s tune. Stars Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt bring to mind Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in their resort wear glam, which is a fine reference to open “By the Sea,” an arty, retro trip through the stiff-but-soused relationships unfolding during the transition from the Greatest Generation to the Sexual Revolution. A decided left turn from her biopic “Unbroken,” Jolie Pitt’s film is an experiment in deeply personal, highly stylized filmmaking that is only partially successful in its efforts. “By the Sea” will most likely be remembered as a cult curio in Angelina Jolie Pitt’s filmmaking career. It’s an ambitious project that strives for a European New Wave vibe, steeped in musings on trauma, grief, and what makes a marriage. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will love this film — it’s too reserved to inspire fervent emotional connection — but with serious contemplation, it’s entirely respectable in its attempts to grapple with the subject in this manner.
Taylor and Burton are a clear inspiration, but so are Scott and Zelda — Fitzgerald that is. Pitt plays Roland, a famous writer who has soaked his brain in too much booze to get any words on the page. The couple have installed themselves in a hotel in the South of France for Roland to write, but he wiles away his days drinking in a seaside boîte, pouring his heart out to the patient proprietor, Michel (Niels Arestrup). Vanessa, a former dancer, has the quality of a lovely, broken doll; a mannequin who keeps up appearances but is so medicated she barely appears to be human. The couple listlessly goes through the motions, barely interacting, retreating into their substances of choice.
It’s clear that they, or at least she, have suffered some kind of great loss that is too big to even speak of. Vanessa has imprisoned herself in this imposing hotel and in her unhappy relationship, so much so that she seems paralyzed, physically and mentally. Reflecting her sedated subjectivity and aching beauty, the compositions of the film are lovely, but the camera is completely inert, capturing Vanessa almost as if she’s in a still photograph, a fashion spread. She’s beautiful but she’s doesn’t exist in three dimensions. The cinematography is by frequent Michael Haneke collaborator Christian Berger (he shot “The Piano Teacher,” “Caché” and “The White Ribbon”), and it is exquisite, the South of France via Vogue.
Roland and Vanessa’s icy world is shaken by the arrival of a newlywed couple in the room next door, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), representative of the fresh ‘70s scene. They’re natural, loose, and comfortable; and lusty, as Vanessa can hear. Soon, she’s spying on the hot young couple through a hole in the wall, and in sharing the sexy secret with her husband, their marriage is reawakened in some ways, for better or for worse.
Jolie Pitt is playing with a lot of advanced ideas in this film, about female psychological pathology, grief, and repressed sexuality. It’s fascinating to see a film reflect such a feminine experience and inner turmoil in this way, and acknowledge the ways in which voyeurism and mental sensuality connect to the corporeal. The rigidity of form and performance only add to Vanessa’s subjective experience of numbness and detachment. As Vanessa, Jolie Pitt has the funereal stiffness of an aging flower arrangement. The film unfolds as a slow, moody tone poem, almost elegiac in its mourning for the couple that they once were, represented by the newlyweds next door.
Not all of the pieces quite fit together. The script is often painfully obvious, having characters speak subtext out loud, with lines such as, “good woman? Have I become that dull?” and “now my outsides match my insides,” that are far too on-the-nose. This culminates in a climax that speaks aloud their dark secret, one that was far more interesting when it was just ambiguous. There are also moments when it’s hard to entirely buy Roland. He’s the drunken scamp with a loyal heart of gold, and that’s just too good to be true. There are a few funny lines, and moments of clarity, but the script is definitely the weak link here. For a film that looks and feels as avant-garde as it does, the script doesn’t put enough faith in the audience to accept ambiguity or pick up underlying meanings.
It’s fascinating that Jolie Pitt, known for her high profile marriage and brood of many children, would choose to make a dark, philosophical period piece about a childless couple in the throes of marital stagnation (or crisis). In her introduction to the film at AFI Fest, she mentioned that the film was about grief, informed by the loss of her own mother, and especially with Michel’s character, this story comes through. It feels deeply personal at times, and perhaps the characters, period setting, and ostentatious wardrobe are shields against Jolie Pitt’s true personal heart, and drawing connections to her own life.
Jolie Pitt’s performance is near Kabuki, which is in stark contrast to the other, naturalistic performances she plays against. This serves to isolate Vanessa within the space; she’s an alien in a foreign land, which must be how she feels always. This acting style, coupled with the melodramatic but arch tone and unhurried pace, results in a film that’s more difficult and complicated than necessarily enjoyable, or even entirely successful. But Jolie Pitt’s insistence on creating a piece that reflects the harsh inner state of a person struggling to understand herself as a wife and as a woman in the world is commendable, and demonstrates her growth as a filmmaker. [B]