By the Sea (2015)

By the Sea (2015)
  • Time: 132 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance
  • Director: Angelina Jolie
  • Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Mélanie Laurent


Set in France during the mid-1970s, Vanessa, a former dancer, and her husband Roland, an American writer, travel the country together. They seem to be growing apart, but when they linger in one quiet, seaside town they begin to draw close to some of its more vibrant inhabitants, such as a local bar/café-keeper and a hotel owner.

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  • In Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie portrayed a married couple whose wedded unbliss was invigorated by the discovery that they were both assassins. Assigned to kill one another, their attempts to trap one another were aphrodisiacal, their hidden but genuine identities a tweak on the pleasures of conventional role-playing. Pitt and Jolie’s latest film, By the Sea, written and directed by Jolie, shares much with Mr. and Mrs. Smith though it is a work of a decidedly different flavour.

    Bold and daring, By the Sea is a deeply personal tale, one that can test the viewer’s patience and one that does not always fulfill its own ambitions, but one that also possesses a rightness in its imperfections. Many may protest at the leisurely pace of its running time given the abundant scenes of what can be reasonably deemed as inertia but, upon review, every scene belongs, each serving as a purposeful note in a contemplative and enigmatic composition.

    Pitt and Jolie star as Roland and Vanessa, first seen in their convertible as it winds its way into a French seaside town. Impossibly chic, they recall Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, or F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre. The latter couple is perhaps more apropos given Roland’s profession as an alcoholic writer and Vanessa being a retired dancer. Yet Roland’s surname is Bertrand, an explicit nod to Jolie’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who was married to actor Jon Voight in the early Seventies, the time period in which By the Sea takes place. The Bertrands check into their lavish hotel, their room overlooking the Mediterranean.

    Roland sets to work on his latest novel, pecking away at his cherry-red typewriter as Vanessa sifts through the latest issue of Vogue magazine. In the morning, she lies on the bed, discontent, as he goes off to town to observe the locals and soak up the surroundings. Vanessa spends the day listlessly lounging inside, then reclining on the deck of their balcony and gazing out at the deep blue sea. She ventures outside, her face obscured by the wide brim of her hat and her oversized sunglasses, shops for groceries, and is unnerved by a little girl who smiles at her. When Roland returns in the evening, they retreat to separate sides of the bed to start it all over again the next day.

    Something has happened to rupture their rapture, and Roland isn’t quite sure how to reach out to his disengaged wife. Their exchanges are barbed; even loving sentiments sound artificial, as if they were rehearsing lines from a play. She resists his touch, often cowering in fear. Jolie employs Pitt’s physicality to potentially threatening effect. She herself resembles a wounded panther, prowling but wary. Like the European directors of the time, Jolie uses the human body within the frame as means of conveying what words withhold. The numerous scenes of Vanessa on the deck show her character’s gradual responsiveness – initially fully dressed, then hiking up her skirt to her thighs, then clad only in her underwear.

    Roland and Vanessa are constantly observing one another, his gaze searching for a way to save whilst hers searches for a way to hurt. The power of the gaze, particularly the female one, is a dominant motif here. Vanessa continually shields herself from view, and from Roland’s symbolic control of that view via his habit of repositioning her sunglasses on whatever surface they’re rested, but she is also the one who first peers through a small hole in the wall to watch the mostly sexual goings-on of the honeymooning couple next door. The newlyweds, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), represent what Roland and Vanessa used to be but, like the younger couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, they become pawns for Vanessa to utilise against her husband. The game Vanessa plays is part recreation of their past selves (she has Lea dress François in a jacket similar to one Roland wore in the early days of their marriage), part jealousy-inducing paranoia (is she pushing Lea into Roland’s reluctant arms or is she tempting François to wound Roland), and all destruction.

    By the Sea’s most perceptive moments come in its handling of Roland and Vanessa’s voyeurism of François and Lea. It’s very clear that Roland plays along for the sake of his wife, and the scene in which he gently coaxes her into doing the watching together is simultaneously seductive, comic, and touching. Jolie explores something intriguing here – strongly suggesting that the flesh does not respond to touch alone, but rather a combination of senses. Vanessa is stirred by seeing the couple next door, but she is equally impassioned upon hearing Roland’s narration of what’s happening in the next room.

    Marital stagnation and grief are admittedly tricky themes to tackle. The tendency would be to tread into melodrama and histrionics, but Jolie imposes a more philosophical and admirably understated approach. As a screenwriter, there’s room for improvement – the dialogue can be too pointed and it may have been wiser to sustain the ambiguity of the couple’s issues. As a director, however, Jolie continues to prove herself an increasingly formidable filmmaker. Equipped with an instinctual understanding of aesthetic and emotional construction, she and cinematographer Christian Berger present a widescreen vision of sun-drenched but ruthlessly dissected erotic stasis, recklessness, and power plays.

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