“Paints a striking portrait of an ugly marriage against a backdrop of beauty”
Brooding, aimlessly wandering through city streets, laying in bed, smoking, and sulking would be much more enjoyable activities if we could all look as beautiful as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt do some variation of the five for nearly two hours in their latest film By the Sea. Upon initially seeing the trailer, which featured little else other than the beautiful location of Mġarr ix-Xini, a bay on the island of Gozo, serving as the backdrop for Brad and Angelina as they slum around a beautiful place looking like they just came out of a makeup chair, I was about as skeptical as could be about the level of sustenance in this film. Because of this, it’s surprising to note that this is a film that, in spite of itself, does a nice job at posing a commentary on relationships and marriage despite not using a great deal of dialog or events.
Set in 1970’s France, the minimalist story revolves around Roland and Vanessa (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt), a married couple of fourteen years who are experiencing a rough patch in their relationship. One can immediately tell the rough patch stems from their inability to talk about anything, with his vice being the local tavern where he’ll go to write, but instead, drink the day away, and her lethargy and unwillingness to get out of bed every day being her way of coping. The two make a cozy hotel their home, as Roland writes and gets to know the bartender Michel (Niels Arestrup), who has just lost his wife, while Vanessa enjoys peering into the hotelroom adjacent to theirs via a small hole in their wall, closed off by a wad of paper. Vanessa spends her days sipping wine, squirming on her balcony, or watching the young couple of Léa and François (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) have sex through the hall.
Roland and Vanessa have a relationship predicated upon arguing, ignoring, and moderate amounts of spousal abuse before Roland discovers the hole in the wall and his wife’s hobby. When he does, the two use the time to drink, eat, and enjoy the view of their young neighbors together. Their attraction to Léa and François isn’t something that’s too out of the blue; the young couple are in their late twenties, which many consider to be the best years of a person’s life because they can inconsequentially try new things and embark on new experiences without having to make a variety of exceptions. With that, Léa and François also still appear to be in love, willing to talk and do pretty much anything together, be it spontaneously go out to dinner or have sex without any kind of reservation. This leads to the subtle assertion on Roland and Vanessa’s behalf that perhaps they have overcomplicated their own marriage, or they even have fallen out of love with one another.
Through the pervasive bouts of staring, drinking, smoking, and wandering inBy the Sea are some seriously tender moments of realizations, and this comes in Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt’s ability to convey emotion through their facial expressions and mannerisms instead of Jolie Pitt replicating such emotions in a way that would embellish their significance. Whether we see Roland act like a hopeless drunk and make a complete buffoon out of himself in front of Michel, his new friend, or we watch Vanessa fight and throw a tantrum when her husband innocently visits her in the shower, we get bold representations of mood through these scenes thanks to the understated power of the real-life couple’s acting abilities.
The fundamental flaw with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt acting in a film together, let alone the two producing it and Jolie Pitt writing and directing it, is that the film will be examined in two ways: a testament to the couple’s real life relationship, which ultimately gives it the impression of a vanity project, or it will be seen as two high-profile tabloid figures that audiences have a hard time convincing themselves their characters on screen aren’t the same ones who still, to this day, glitz tabloid covers in grocery stores. The hard part is By the Sea is so minimalist in its style, so slight in its narrative and character development, that those who aren’t known to appreciate aesthetic and craft in a film, especially in the way the film adheres to the visual conventions (not so much technical or aesthetic) of French New Wave, aren’t likely to tolerate this film’s two hour runtime and liberal narrative. This is a film that boasts a reward that comes with contemplation hours after you’ve seen it.
By the Sea, though it hinges ever-so delicately on the realm of self-parody thanks to its excessive brooding, mopey character behavior, and the characters constantly looking attractive despite operating in a disheveled state of defeat, is also a sad film that mixes ideas of marital disconnect, kinkiness, voyeurism, and marital stability in long-term relationships in a fascinating way. Its examination of relationships – by juxtaposing a young, idealistic couple with an aging and distant one – paints a striking portrait of an ugly marriage against a backdrop of beauty, adding layers to a film that would look wonderful on a post-card. To conclude on a bizarre comparison, Jolie Pitt’s intention of how to paint marriage reminds me of how director and photographer Larry Clark chose to paint the suburbs of America in the 1950’s – as beautiful, precise landscapes that housed dysfunction. The same can be said for Jolie Pitt’s examination of marriage.