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AFI Review: ‘By The Sea’ by Angelina Jolie Pitt, Co-Starring Brad Pitt and Mélanie Laurent

AFI Review: 'By The Sea' by Angelina Jolie Pitt, Co-Starring Brad Pitt and Mélanie Laurent

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] 

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Comments

Isabel

I can’t believe I sat through this God awful movie.

Vee

I apologize for the double post. My first post didn’t initially display.

The commentary from detractors are proving my point. They are mocking Angelina personally for discussing her life. Why be scornful towards the loss of her mother, her masectomies, and charity work? Her haters want to believe she has zero talent behind the camera.

Neither Unbroken or By the Sea were terrible movies. More and more people are noticing the bias here.

It was competently directed.

Vee

Why isn’t the site letting people post positive comments about the movie?

I posted a long response. The film has a lot of heart and soul behind it. The acting was intense and the cinematography was gorgeous.

The media is terribly biased against Jolie with journalists refusing to emotionally connect to her films and misperceiving it in the worst way.

You have to embrace the themes of this avant garde film.

Vee

I bet some of these haters that are slamming the movie haven’t seen it and are just rejoicing that the media’s ugly and transparent bias is trashing Jolie’s works of art again.

The media keeps displaying their over the top bias against Jolie time and time again. You don’t witness this type of antagonism towards other directors or actresses. The media constantly operates on a slanderous and derogatory narrative where they undermine Angelina as a human being. It is like they design their reviews to sabotage her films from succeeding during awards season or at the box office.

It is refreshing to see a critic who is actually objective and tries to even understand what Angelina’s artistic convictions behind the film are. By the Sea is actually a really beautiful, complex, and multi-layered film that requires a lot of introspective analysis. It was made clear from the start that this was a melancholy film that was about pain and loss that would be very abstract in nature. The acting is top notch from both Brad and Angelina. I think this might be one of Angelina’s best performances. She would have been a contender for Best Actress if the biased critics hadn’t maligned it. The cinematography is gorgeous. Most of the commentary comes from people who are already antagonistic against Angelina, love to enhance the negative spin against her regarding anything, and are trying to damage her credibility as an artist. No other director gets lampooned like this where people act like they do not even have the right to direct a movie. Angelina has to direct an epic masterpiece of the ages to receive approval from the biased critics. People already knew that the critics would slaughter this movie.

Vee

I bet some of these haters that are slamming the movie haven’t seen it and are just rejoicing that the media’s ugly and transparent bias is trashing Jolie’s works of art again.

The media keeps displaying their over the top bias against Jolie time and time again.

You don’t witness this type of antagonism towards other directors or actresses.

The media constantly operates on a slanderous and derogatory narrative where they undermine Angelina as a human being. It is like they design their reviews to sabotage her films from succeeding during awards season or at the box office.

It is refreshing to see a critic who is actually objective and tries to even understand what Angelina’s artistic convictions behind the film are.

By the Sea is actually a really beautiful, complex, and multi-layered film that requires a lot of introspective analysis.

It was made clear from the start that this was a melancholy film that was about pain and loss that would be very abstract in nature.

The acting is top notch from both Brad and Angelina. I think this might be one of Angelina’s best performances. She would have been a contender for Best Actress if the biased critics hadn’t maligned it. The cinematography is gorgeous.

Most of the commentary comes from people who are already antagonistic against Angelina, love to enhance the negative spin against her regarding anything, and are trying to damage her credibility as an artist.

No other director gets lampooned like this where people act like they do not even have the right to direct a movie.

Angelina has to direct an epic masterpiece of the ages to receive approval from the biased critics. People already knew that the critics would slaughter this movie.

Tony

It grates that there are particular critics who seem to be grasping at straws to make this film seem more "commendable". The great cinematography does not make the script, the acting, or the plot any more interesting. I LOVE art house and indie films, and while most of America doesn’t like them, perhaps, that doesn’t mean that not accepting this melodramatic forage into posturing of the 1960’s films that were so successful means that one simply just doesn’t "get it". Let’s consider the very real possibility that Jolie simply isn’t that talented, in front of or behind the camera, as evidenced by her other films, before we insult everyone who rolls their eyes at this film? I agree with a commenter above. Jolie gets the kid-glove treatment by too many. She’s gone out of her way to make sure we remember just how tragic her life is, just how generous she is, so that criticism of her "artistry" seems wildly unfair. There are hundreds of far more deserving directors who are both male and female.

Domiziano

Well, i agree with Catherine on how many great and greater (possibly) filmmakers strive to make a personal, stylish, and insightful movie, without 27 million dollars (that much really? WOW!), often just hoping for a million dollars, and, yet having to go through a painful, often desperate labor of love, at the end of which, a movie could just suddenly happen, or most likely fall apart quickly, erasing the memory (and, traumatic loss!) of years spent anticipating and working on meetings with investors, distributors, wrap’s agents, or just ‘agents’ packaging, and, re-packaging your film, while (and, that’s truly awful) altering the script, the initial intents, the atmospheres you had almost killed yourself while finding key personal narrative choices, and stylistic strength,and, all the inspiration, the tone, the structure or the dialog, even, that’s gotta fit -of course- all demographics, and, finally, to perpetually argue someone’s vision,while,immediately barking over possible -appropriate- casting, and, even crews,and, so forth, always favoring – as it’s become one of those habits that seem impossible to eradicate, since they all feel as a collective of rules that have been always there before you, like the Constitution, anyways, and, that,certainly, don’t even make news to anyone who has had the pleasure to work for a while, professionally, in this business, and, please, let me stress it, art form – always trying, however, and, without remorse, to shift the conversation into far more profitable (in their minds, that is, since nothing is truly bankable today, rather than a very good, and, truly accomplished movie, regardless of who’s starring in it, or of what it is about, nonetheless, this always feels as nonsense, anytime someone is trying a pitch a new project, unless you can afford to brag a real strong name, supported by a major team behind your shoulders, and, even better, somebody up there who loves, protects, and, finally, adores you,and maybe then.. they might even give you the time of the day, and, end up to listen, making faces or expressions, that, as their most benign, appear like a Francis Bacon’s portrayal of discouraged disbelief: the filmmmaker at this point frantically sweaty, and, increasingly, progressively is framed in a situation that’s so far from a place of creative intents, as he or she may grow alarmed and ending up as if they were just almost like placing a plead,instead of explaining a movie project! I can tell how rarely someone is given a fair chance to express whatever creative process it’s been introduced to some reasonable interest, which should be always granted to somebody’s extraordinary attempt at envisioning a story into cinematic structure, while putting a story and its words into space and lights, and measuring it with the proportion of their dimensions, a whole conversation that’s still highly demanding of talent, which should be respected, always, to begin with, and, given the dignity anyone would deserve, at least, when being given a chance of a mere explanation of the artistic rights we should simply retain, since we work so hard for, i do still believe in my idealistic, and, perhaps, surreal, these days, approach at what feels more like "mission impossible", than anything else! It is extremely difficult to even express, at this point, just a description of ‘the movie somebody might wanna make, and, why and how’, especially, if on top of all other odds, it just happens to be not a super hero, or a Marvel’s, an "hungover alike" over the top, raunchy romp, or some sort of derivative sequel, tackling always the usual but -who knows why- so much more comfortable, very familiar areas belonging to some other disaster, already badly made, and, at least, another thousand of times before, best if described as sparkling with lots of CGI’s, and, evolving into a nonsense, formulaic narrative that even a 7 years old would by now recognize on the spot, that is.. lol Now, i will stop my rant, and, relieve anyone so patient to read this little diversion over personal filmmaking in Hollywood today, and, just would like to praise Jolie, for at least, trying a different avenue,and, so obviously wanting and needing to praise a kind of Cinema that is so difficult and almost virtually impossible to get made, since we are not in the 1970s anymore, sadly, and Hollywood has changed in ways that feel at times truly like "The Day of the Locust" without its heart of darkness! The result is not unfortunately accomplished, and, the script is also unfortunately one of the main key factors, and, it is a shame it was approved as it was, since it could have been re-worked by more appropriate hands, and, perhaps have wonderfully sparkled, making of Jolie, a truly cinematic sensation, aside from her over exposed red carpet image somehow poisoning some of her acting efforts,too! She looks lovely, actually, her look, and, some of the stylistic choices (from angles, to the wonderful cinematography delivered with appointed tone, by master dp Christian Berger,her costumes, make up,etc.) reminded me – at times- of one of my favorite stars of that fabulous time past, Julie Christie! Especially in some angles she seems truly to embrace that same interior, poetic beauty that Christie so naturally delivered in great movies such as Nic Roeg’s "Don’t Look Now", or Losey’s "The Go-Between", and, a few others, and, so she does appear impeccable and profound, but, due to the lack of emotional movement, she ends up sadly falling flat and static, truly as just she was photographed for some glam magazines. It’s all too bad, i thought, because, to my taste, at least, the intents were certainly there, and truly admirable,while also trying to honor such amazing 20th Century icons like Francis & Zelda Fitzgerald, in something like "Tender is the Night", a masterpiece, and, look, one of my favorite novels, ever! So, it was difficult for me not to be fascinated by the atmospheres of this movie, and, was truly hoping that the second act, would at least, succeed, conveying that final, beautiful, heartfelt momentum, the movie so sadly completely misses instead, resulting as somber as it is inert. But, it wasn’t at my advise something to condemn, but, to at least, praise for the will, and, mostly the true sensation of a need, here so widely perceived, of a necessary change of pace in modern Hollywood.

Spike Mockery

Who’s not going to make light of the PAINFULLY obvious the GH (last pic) jokes at the foot of our bed here… I mean, c’mon man… C’mon…

Lib

The review doesn’t match the grade. That sounded like a [C-], at best.

Catherine

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.
Jolie is screenwriter. 27 million dollar art house films aren’t being made these days. But this one got greenlighted. Shame.

Catherine

Growth as director? There are 99 Female Directors on newly release Vulture’s list who are more capable now. Not using the Hollywood Studio System as a crash course in filmmaking. Why the kid gloves for Jolie?

Mil3

@Lea this review was one of the more positive for the film. This critic seemed to try to give Angelina Jolie more wiggle room out of the poor screenwriting and badly realised movie than most others. Save your disappointment for Jolie-Pitt.

Lea

What a terrible writer. You try too hard to sound above an average writer. Tone your language down. Your critique of the film was probably worse than the film itself.

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