Thursday, November 19, 2015

Review: "By the Sea"

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that “By the Sea” will not be everyone’s slice of pie. Set in the 1970s, it’s a throwback to a style of filmmaking from that same era we don’t see much anymore: contemplative, personal, forthrightly erotic, at times wandering and hazy, at times mesmerizing.

I’ve long made it a point not to read other reviews or articles about a movie before I’ve written my own, but couldn’t avoid a growing and nasty wave of commentary about this film. Much of this seems to owe to it starring Hollywood supercouple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and that it was written and directed by the latter (who is credited, perhaps tellingly, as Angelina Jolie Pitt).

They haven’t made a movie together since “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” when of course Pitt was married to somebody else. It seems eons ago, but it was just 10 years. Since then they’ve wed, had a gaggle of children (adopted and natural), gone through a major medical scare for her, seen their careers bounce high and low.

Now in his 50s, he’s become choosier about his film projects, and she’s starred in fewer and fewer, preferring the space behind the camera. “By the Sea” is Jolie Pitt’s third film as a director, the first in which she also acted, and her best.

There’s not much to the story. The Bertrands, husband and wife, are motoring along the French coastline. They find a nice place with a gorgeous view of a rocky bay, and stop for a while. Their linger becomes a wallow, as he tries to use the setting as inspiration for his writing, and she seems to have little reason to exist beyond embodying resentment.

The Bertrands are not happy people. Married 14 years, they’re engaged in a wary pas de deux through the “second stage of life.” Roland mostly drinks and takes notes at the local café, but the sheet of paper in his typewriter remains obstinately unchanged. Vanessa (Ness) hangs around the hotel balcony, spying on sunbathers, occasionally going shopping in town while wearing an enormous hat and sunglasses, Audrey Hepburn-like.

They act like celebrities hiding out, and indeed he was once a noted novelist and she was a famous performer (the venue is vague). Money does not seem to be a problem, as they wear expensive clothes, buy their suppers, smoke cigarettes and drink, drink, drink.

A colleague commented after the screening that this is the sort of movie “Liz & Dick” -- meaning Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton -- might’ve made a half-century ago, and the comparison is apt. Like their earlier counterparts, Brad and Angelina are world-famous figures who seem bored and bothered by their status, and are looking to use this movie to comment upon and distance themselves from their public personas. Ness is an object of curiosity to most everyone she encounters, but she prefers to remain remote and aloof.

Things happen, slowly. Roland befriends the older bartender (Niels Arestrup) and tries to squeeze every considerable ounce of wisdom out of him -- both for his book and the sake of his marriage.

A younger couple on their honeymoon (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) moves into the suite next door, and Ness begins spying on them through a forgotten pipe. Meanwhile, she and Roland are virtually asexual. He soon joins her in voyeurism, simply to have something they can share.

“By the Sea” is an amazingly beautiful movie; Pitt and Jolie Pitt have never looked more gorgeous. It’s a very observational film, keying on little details like the way Ness always tosses her sunglasses onto the table, and he always rights them so the glass doesn’t get scratched. We watch a red-shirted fisherman row his tiny boat out of the mouth of the bay and back every day, but never meet him. There are fleshy flashes of thoughts that bound around inside Ness’ head, but it’s torment rather than desire that makes her vibrate.

This is the sort of movie that isn’t really “about” anything, other than the question of whether Roland and Ness make it as a married couple, or not. At times their situation seems dire, later hopeful, then less so. Their disillusion, carefully staked out in their days spent apart, is challenged in ways unexpected. This movie is less about the what than the how.

Some people are ready to dismiss “By the Sea” as an old-school vanity project, but I think that’s missing the point. People -- especially those who’ve spent their lives pretending to be somebody else -- often understand others better than they do themselves. Here are a pair of stars behaving like nobodies, and having a swell time acting miserable.

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