“La Notte” (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)
In the long tradition of art house cinema, including Antonioni’s own “L’Avventura” and “L’Eclisse,” “La Notte” is an evocative drama built entirely on mood and spiraling feelings. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau play an unfaithful married couple whose relationship deteriorates over the course of a long day filled with temptation from suitors and longing for the connection they once shared. Upon first introduction, the couple seems to have it all; Mastroianni’s Giovanni is an acclaimed writer who has recently published his latest novel, while Moreau’s Lidia is a sultry beauty. A master of observation, Antonioni fills the picture with long silences and drawn out scenes that expose the ruins of the couple’s interior state. As each finds himself/herself at the center of someone else’s attraction, the inevitable conclusion hits like a slow-motion wrecking ball, despite the fact they remain together. In one scene they watch a couple at a night club provocatively dance, a fleeting mirage of their glory days. Through patience and mounting undertones, Antonioni narrows in on a painful dissonance with an uncertain future.
“L’Amour fou” (Jacques Rivette, 1969)
Two years before Jacques Rivette delivered his 12-hour magnum opus “Out 1,” the icon of French New Wave cinema explored the collision of professional and personal desire in the four-hour “L’Amour fou.” The drama centers on the never-ending cycle of self-destruction between the actress Claire (Bulle Ogier) and the director Sébastien-Pyrrhus (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). The two and their fellow cast and crew members are rehearsing for a production of Jean Racine’s 1667 tragedy “Andromaque,” but the couple can’t seem to leave their personal struggles at home. As their personal erosion bleeds into their work, Sébastien finds escape in the arms of other women, while Claire turns a blind eye, refusing to acknowledge her husband by focusing exclusively on her performance (a role that mimics the loss and tragedy her current relationship). Art becomes life and life becomes art, and Rivette blurs the line through the use of 16mm and 35mm film stocks. A film crew is filming the production preparations on 16mm, allowing Rivet to jump into the format and fuel themes of “direction” in both art and relationships.
“Boccaccio ’70” (Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Mario Monicelli, 1962)
Using the realism and humanist relationships found in the works of Giovanni Boccaccio as a springboard, four of the most prestigious Italian directors of all time join forces for this epic anthology film exploring the struggling relationship between love and modernity. Each story finds a couple facing off against societal roadblocks, be it a pair forced to hide their marriage and pregnancy from a strict bookkeeper or an angry citizen driven to the brink of insanity by the temptation of advertisements he sees of Swedish-Italian bombshell Anita Ekberg. Luchino Visconti’s fourth episode, “Il Lavoro,” is perhaps the most devastating of the lot. An aristocratic couple, played by Romy Schneider and Tomas Milian, must reconcile the history and future of their relationship after the press catches the husband with prostitutes, leaving the wife with the imposing task of forging a new path and discovering if she wants to continue on.
“La Collectionneuse” (Éric Rohmer, 1967)
Éric Rohmer’s 1967 drama — the fourth in his “Six Moral Tales” series — is not about a marriage in crisis, though it possess themes of re-awakening desires and a setting of a beautiful seaside resort that make it perhaps the clearest predecessor to “By the Sea.” Patrick Bauchau and Daniel Pommereulle star as Adrien and Daniel, respectively, two friends who shack up in Saint-Tropez at their friend’s vacation home. Their arrival takes a detour, however, when they discover someone else is already staring there — a beautiful and vivacious young woman named Haydee (Haydée Politoff). The woman appears mostly at night with a different lover (she’s a “collector” of men, hence the title), and the two friends soon find themselves in a power struggle of temptation and resistance. The idle mind games pave the way for a slow simmering exploration of interior arousal that matches Rohmer’s lush, sensual visuals. Few art house classics are as intoxicating as this one.
“Scenes From a Marriage” (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)
Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage” is perhaps the most harrowing portrait of a failed marriage. Originally filmed as a television movie, this nearly five-hour drama takes a severely claustrophobic approach in chronicling the disintegration of a couple, played by Bergman regulars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Across six chapters, the couple faces no shortage of devastating crises, from several affairs to an abortion, a separation and a catastrophic attempt to re-enter each other’s lives. The subject matter is hard to handle on its own merit, but Bergman, a master of psychological reckoning and introspection, tests the audiences endurance with challenging close-ups and bitter monologues all captured in long takes. This aesthetic approach can be a cruel act at times, though it undoubtedly drops you into the despair and chaos at the film’s center.
“L’Amour l’après-midi” (Éric Rohmer, 1972)
Of all the European art house filmmakers, Jolie seems most inspired by Éric Rohmer in terms of thematic exploration. Similar to “La Collectionneuse” (see above), “L’Amour l’après-midi,” which translates to “Love in the Afternoon,” doesn’t exactly put a central focus on a spiraling marriage, but it does revel in the sensual ways relationships awaken or destroy one’s inner desires. The film is told entirely from the husband’s perspective — a successful lawyer stuck in a void despite a happy marriage and a growing family. He spends his days submerged in the memories of the past or fantasizing about being a king of masculine sexuality (in one sequence all the women he encounters bow at his feet), though his life is soon vitalized by the presence of a beautiful women who once was the girlfriend of an old friend. Temptation again plays a huge role in the atmosphere of the film, as one connection threatens to formidably change another. It’s precisely this unpredictable dance of relationships, told in a languid, meditative pace, that Jolie has capitalized on in “By the Sea.”