Movie Review: By the Sea
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt look to the black and white classic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in this flat, contrived and utterly self-conscious piece of cinema that isn’t afraid of Virginia Woolf, or dark satire
By the Sea
Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud
Directed by: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Running time: 122 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
You can’t blame them for trying on a little George and Martha: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf sits on the top shelf of film history and remains one of only two films to be nominated in every eligible category of the Academy Awards.
More to the point, the Mike Nichols film proved how much extra dramatic mileage you can get by strapping a real-life couple into the front seat of the film, seducing the audience into believing they are witnessing the real-time wreckage of a genuine relationship.
Playwright Edward Albee wanted James Mason and Bette Davis to play the alcohol-fuelled flameouts, but Nichols knew the public was already captivated by the on-again, off-again dynamic between the biggest movies stars of the day, and cast Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the volatile duo – with Taylor gaining 30 pounds to play the frumpy 50-year-old with conviction.
Stanley Kubrick attempted a similar feat with Eyes Wide Shut, casting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as another tortured pair, but the lack of real chemistry gave the film a warped quality, ensuring we saw a funhouse mirror reflection of a sideshow marriage that proved tragically accurate.
And now we have Angelina Jolie Pitt and husband Brad taking on the roles of Roland and Vanessa, a couple that enters the film in a period sports car looking like – what else? – classic movie stars that just wandered off the set of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.
It’s a clear wink of self-awareness, and it’s something you have to accept or reject early because this itch for performance coupled with voyeuristic scratching ends up defining the whole skin-crawling experience of watching By the Sea.
Written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt (who clearly wanted the viewer to connect the dots between fact and fiction by using her compounded married name), this movie is set in the scenic south of France circa 1971.
Roland and Vanessa check into a rustic seaside hotel and quickly rearrange the room, placing a portable typewriter by the picture window and a bottle of booze within arm’s reach. As they unpack every stumped-creator cliché, we see can feel the weight of the blade against their matrimonial throat.
These two are locked in a game of emotional extortion that’s gone so deep, it’s beyond the reach of language. They exchange nothing but looks and silences, forcing the viewer to invest in their domestic inferno, if only to satisfy a primal sense of curiosity.
After all, why is such a beautiful couple so miserable? Why does Roland spend every day drinking in the local pub, exchanging shallow aphorisms with the bartending widower with the sad eyes? Why does the beautiful Vanessa insist on being such a self-indulgent sourpuss? And why have these two upwardly mobile Americans wrapped their sucking, self-loathing tentacles around Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), the loving French newlyweds who just moved into the room next door?
Something is tearing Roland and Vanessa apart, and because they are beautiful and charismatic, we are supposed to care. But whether it’s a function of the minimalist script that leaves too many blanks, or the film’s twisted sense of ego that renders our central characters thoroughly unsympathetic, it’s hard to empathize with Roland and Vanessa.
It’s like sucking on a piece of white bread and expecting to get a hint of flavor: These people are blanched and processed.
The only color in their lives comes from the outside world: the fancy Citroen cabriolet, the red Italian typewriter. These European accessories dress up these American dolls with the bad French accents, lending them a soupcon of continentalism that feels wonderfully forced – much like the movie itself.
By the Sea is as subtle as kabuki theatre. Metaphor crashes against the rocks, scenes swirl in deep eddies of self-consciousness and the dialogue has all the nuance of an inflatable orange rubber raft.
In almost every sense, these are significant problems because they undermine any sense of authenticity and make the whole exercise feel like a ridiculously over-wrought soap opera.
And yet, in every scrap of butchered French, every egotistical glance in the mirror and every bit of bubble bath titillation, there’s a fleeting shadow of satire – a raised middle finger silently screaming ‘fuck you all!’
This digit belongs to writer-director Jolie Pitt, and yes, By the Sea seems to be her version of Contempt – a contrived response to the harassment that comes with celebrity, and perhaps, even a bold answer to the base curiosity surrounding her post-surgery body – given we see several shots of her perfectly formed bare chest.
Like the two couples forced to cohabitate center-frame, By the Sea doesn’t have a single easy moment of connection. It feels distorted and uncomfortable, flat yet randomly hyperbolic, stupid and yet strangely articulate.
In other words, it feels a lot like spending time with an entitled American couple in the South of France: You may not be having a great time in their company, but they’re completely oblivious. They don’t care about you. This contrived exercise is all about them and how they feel about themselves, so the fact you’re even in the same room with these self-absorbed assholes is a subtle indictment of society itself – a slap in the face for our voyeuristic tendencies that have us peering into the private lives of strangers and quietly getting off on others’ pain.
So the fact this movie turns out to be a total bore may, in theory at least, be its chief source of creative redemption.
THE EX-PRESS, December 9, 2015