Movie Review: By the Sea (2015)

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Angelina Jolie Pitt’s directorial career could already be summed up by saying all of her projects are guided with the aspiration of good intentions; good intentions that for all intents and purposes fall flat due to a lack of substance found in her usually superficial storytelling. Her first feature In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) was an admirable unfolding of the bloody impact of the Bosnian War, yet the film became dreadfully stale under the weight of unbearable dialogue and odious reflections. Showing signs of visual and narrative improvement in Unbroken (2014)—the adaptation of Olympian Louis Zamperini’s journey of survival during World War II—she still couldn’t muster a completely insightful portrait of her subject matter as it felt empty of redemption and lingered solely on the aspect of idolized suffering. In her latest feature By the Sea, Jolie Pitt’s valid good intentions continue in a project that touts some recognizable cinematic, personal, and artistic influences: the homage to 60s/70s European cinema pioneered by atmospheric auteurs Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Jean Luc-Godard; a self-aware desire to be artistically meta in regards to her and her husband Brad Pitt’s celebrity; and an unconventional character mending through shared voyeurism. However, Jolie Pitt proves that no matter how admirable your intentions may be they can still pave the way into artistic hell. With less energy than Alan Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1962), mindless declamatory dialogue, and a constricting atmosphere that defines pointlessness, By the Sea stands as one of the dreariest, hollowest, and most mundane vanity films ever conceived. Jolie Pitt might want to establish herself as a cinematic artist, but her third feature establishes herself more on the line of a counterfeit artist; a talented imitator who recreates her influences while never finding the depth, the character, or the themes that make the originals so significant.

There’s not much going on in regards to thematic depth, character development, or thoughtful introspection within By the Sea, nor is there much of a plot to go on. Instead, the film meanders through repetition, tedium, and even suffocation on the melancholic ambiance of a disintegrating marriage set amidst the pristine backdrop of a desiccated and old-fashioned resort in the South of France (actually filmed in Malta). The couple consists of self-pitying ex-dancer Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) and her floundering writer husband Roland (Brad Pitt), the former being a complete narcissist consumed by immense self-loathing and the latter a drunken pseudo-Hemingway suffering writer’s block. It’s a languorous setup filled with tear stricken mournful gazes, silent judgement while driving in a Citroën convertible, standing near cliffs by the sea, and century slow sequences with a period soundtrack that includes Serge Gainsbourg. It’s all supposed to be understated artistry as the film views the couple’s estrangement as one of shameful avoidance instead of dramatic confrontation. It’s all incredibly grating, even when the film turns into voyeuristic intrigue as Vanessa and Roland bond over watching a newlywed couple (the wonderful Mélanie Laurent and French sex icon Melvil Poupaud) through a peephole in their room, which is a concept that defines writerly overstatement. There are moments of visual grace and authentic charm throughout By the Sea—a decomposing in makeup Jolie, the beautiful Malta seaside, and the interactions in French between Roland and the obligatory wise local bartender (the underrated French character actor Niels Arestrup)—but these are mere moments in a film that gives perfume commercials a bad name. It’s an odd combination of explicit visual messaging and an atmosphere of vague trauma that’s slowly revealed, and when it all eventually unfolds it’s so simple and weighed down by specificity that the film loses its own sense of universal reflection.

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A phony sophistication lies at the heart of By the Sea, most likely due to Angelina Jolie Pitt’s cinema studies enthusiasm for the genre she’s forcefully mimicking. It’s a rendition on the troubled couple in an elegant yet alienating setting, which has been made famous in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954), Jean Luc-Godard’s Contempt (1963), and even as late as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990). These are reflective, atmospheric dramas where exposition is replaced by mood, setting, and suggestion, there’s a hint of pseudo-intellectualism ingrained in their themes, and there’s a tendency for these films to adopt a gorgeous aesthetic without any consideration for contemplating actual depth. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman once said of Antonioni’s direction that his films “suffocated on their own tediousness,” while Francois Truffaut remarked, “he bores me; he’s so solemn and humorless.” Certainly there’s some merit to the often times languid, self-indulgent European cinema of the 60s/70s, but Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea is undeniably the straight-to-cable version that, indeed, suffocates on its own tediousness. Still, Jolie Pitt’s admirable intentions at least give her vanity film some semblance of imitated (though thoroughly constrained) emotion underneath its pretentious art-direction surface, a quality that never existed in similar vanity couple projects that include the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez bomb Gigli (2003) and the Sean Penn-Madonna flop Shanghai Surprise (1986). Perhaps it’s more on the lines of the divisive final film of Stanley Kubrick Eyes Wide Shut (1999), since both Kubrick and Jolie Pitt’s thematic ambitions were to ponder a universal sense of marital desolation. However, that would be an erroneous recognition that the imitation as art piece By the Sea actually had contemplative layers. Unfortunately, any actual thoughtfulness in simulated genre or thematic introspection is replicated through film aesthetic and not through actual storytelling.

If there’s ever one saving grace to an Angelina Jolie Pitt film it’s the consistent ability that she has to bring together a fine crew to ignite at least a pristine visual envelopment on the screen. With In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) she collaborated with veteran cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, Apocalypto) and in Unbroken (2014) she employed the immaculate Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men), both of whom gave those films a vivid filmic touch. In By the Sea, Jolie Pitt has found another visual muse in Austrian cinematographer Christian Berger who is known for shooting most of filmmaker Michael Haneke’s films, from The Piano Teacher (2001) to The White Ribbon (2009). His distinct ability to find the pain through beautiful imagery is practically unmatched and revisiting the sexual voyeurism he tackled in Haneke’s Caché (2005) certainly is part of his forte. Another aesthetic feature that is touted in By the Sea is not only the beauty of scenery, but also the beauty of costume design (Ellen Mirojnick), set design (Jillie Azis), and, of course, the seminal beauty of the two leads. However, beauty in features—including that Citroën convertible, a blood red Olivetti Valentine typewriter, and the tear-stricken face of Jolie Pitt—and a film school sensibility in mimicking the influences of mid-20th Century European cinema doesn’t make a complete film. By the Sea does contain moments of beauty (of the superficial and slightly deep kind), the occasional flash of genuine introspection, and flashes of emotional devastation and character vulnerability in the performances of Brangelina, but those are fleeting in a sub-mediocre art film that tries harder than it succeeds.

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But perhaps the attempt is valid in and of itself. According to Angelina Jolie Pitt the story of By the Sea is based upon that of her parents, and venturing this personal experience, trauma, or memory might be a powerful sense of catharsis. However, audiences don’t need to suffer along with a self-therapy session of psychodrama, especially one that moves so glacially that it constricts all enjoyment from its beauty, all thought from its contemplations, and all intrigue from its moments of unconventional storytelling. Just because something is personal does not necessarily make it deep, and By the Sea traverses the self-indulgence of its director/writer in a vanity film that only mildly hints at a credible talent behind the camera. Jolie Pitt has taken on an exceptionally difficult endeavor to emulate the atmospheric auteurs of the 60s/70s; a task that already seems pointless considering that the artistry of Antonioni, Godard, and Rossellini often times fell short of their pretentious aims. Her film is too uneven, too hollow, and too mild in its self-reflection to match the best of her influences, and the end result doesn’t make for compelling filmmaking. It’s admirable that Jolie Pitt—with now three completed features—has showcased an ambition to experiment with different genres, settings, and tones, which hints at her potential to be a quality presence behind the camera. However, admiration can only take your willingness so far, and it’s becoming rather unbearable to witness Jolie Pitt’s film school auditions in what should be a refined, professional, and completed setting.

Grade: C-

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