In By the Sea, actress turned director Angelina Jolie examines marriage and femininity in a decidedly art house manner. Recalling themes from all sort of previous films, everything from Rear Window to Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?, Jolie’s film has the power to interest but not to enthrall. The film is technically a failure I suppose, but one that fails in such an interesting way that it almost has you forgetting that.
I don’t know what it is about Jolie’s films that everyone seems to react so differently to, but her foray into directing has been very interesting to witness. This goes for both the films themselves and the critical reactions to them. My reaction to By the Sea, like her previous film, Unbroken, is more positive than most though for completely different reasons. Unbroken was a pretty paint by numbers Oscar bait movie, but at least those numbers were painted in with more respect and care than you normally see. By the Sea on the other hand, tries to be a very artsy and pretentious picture, peering into the story of this couple like its the most important thing in the world. It comes up a bit short, but its interesting to see Jolie try to live up to the European art house films of the 1960s.
Roland and Vanessa (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are a married couple travelling in France. Their marriage is on the rocks and we have no idea why, but Vanessa is obviously troubled about something and Roland is frustrated with the lack of intimacy between them. Roland tries to work on his novel (the reason they are there) and Vanessa stays in the hotel room all day, sulking, until one day she realizes a peep hole into the room next door. She starts to spy on the newlywed couple staying there (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupard). She gets drawn into their lives, which seem to be picture perfect in comparison to hers and Roland’s, and one day Roland discovers her secret and they watch them together. This seems to repair their relationship somewhat, until Vanessa wants to keep watching them and while Roland doesn’t think they should. This causes Vanessa to drive herself between the couple next door and Roland to finally confront her about what happened to make her so depressed in the first place.
To say the reason for Vanessa’s destructive behavior that is finally revealed is a let down is an understatement for sure. That’s not a reflection on the reason itself, but rather how it is built up and finally revealed. We see these very abstract flashbacks that gets us on the right track to what it is, and her obsession with the other couple and marriage suggests that it is something that has gone wrong between her and Roland. We did not need to explicitly know what it was to get the effect the film is going for, and its treatment as a key plot revelation does not help matters. The shock the film is going for in that moment just does not come off at all. This is mostly due to the fact that Roland just yells it, instead of carrying through with the artsy vibe that the film had sort of built up all along.
The middle of the film is unquestionably the most rewarding. The beginning is too slow and there’s not enough information to really get invested in the characters until the voyeurism starts happening, and by the end Jolie drops the artsiness and goes for a far more conventional and straightforward ending (this film ends on a freeze frame- what?!). However, in the middle, it seems like Jolie is really onto something. It’s incredibly strange to watch Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the floor of their hotel room, eating room service and drinking wine, staring through a peephole at the their neighbors having sex. That’s not something I ever though I would see in a movie, and when you’re watching it, it’s hard to tell how one should feel about it. Moreover, the implications for Roland and Vanessa’s relationship are very interesting, as if watching how “normal” people behave gets them on track to behaving more normally themselves. But then it takes a dark turn just to force the silly climax and the movie looses a lot of the goodwill it built up in that middle stretch.
The biggest criticism of By the Sea is that it’s uneven. From one act to the next, it seems like Jolie is trying to make a slightly different movie. This isn’t a logical progression, at least not one I can follow. However, the movie is very gorgeous overall, giving one a very experiential movie. Movies don’t often find value in simply looking at images, and perhaps it is hubris for Jolie to turn the camera on herself in long takes without much story to back it up, but the fact remains that she is weirdly visually compelling throughout the movie. It’s set in the 70s so the fashion is cool, but she also has incredible eye makeup the entire time. Her eyes appear giant, and her character is a dancer so she holds herself in that sort of way. It’s hard to describe in words, so Jolie and cinematographer Christian Berger have done their jobs. It’s nice to have a movie contend that there is value in simply looking at character and getting to know them that way, from the images alone, even if the overall movie doesn’t quite live up to that sentiment by the end.
When all is said and done, I’m still very interested in Angelina Jolie’s directing career. I hope she tries again, because even though she hasn’t made any great films yet (I mean, that’s a tall order people!) she’s doing interesting things. This film might be uneven tonally and poorly paced, but its still trying to grapple with some interesting ideas about marriage and voyeurism. It’s a beautiful film, and one that knows the value of its images (even if the script doesn’t quite match up). Again, not a perfect film but one I was able to appreciate and one that made me look forward to Angelina Jolie’s next effort, whatever that may be.
“Have a nice day.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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