by Matt Levine
In 1948, actress Ingrid Bergman—riding the heights of her Hollywood fame on the heels of Casablanca and Notorious—wrote a letter to the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Rome Open City (1945) and Paisan (1946), Rossellini’s first postwar movies, had recently opened to international acclaim (and helped spawn Italian neorealism). From Hollywood, Bergman wrote: “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.” Their first three collaborations--Stromboli (1950), Europe ’51 (1952), and Voyage to Italy (1954), made while Bergman and Rossellini struck up a passionate affair (both were married) and had a child—are somewhat unique in film history for being transparently about the author and the star, or at least for concocting melodramas heavily inflected by their lives. As Richard Brody writes, “the very subject of their films together…is her presence in them.”
Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Producers: Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt
Writer: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Cinematographer: Christian Berger
Editors: Martin Pensa, Patricia Rommel
Music: Gabriel Yared
Cast: Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup, Richard Bohringer
US Theatrical Release: November 13, 2015
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
I don’t intend to put By the Sea at the same level as the Bergman-Rossellini films, but Angelina Jolie’s third feature also is unavoidably about its director and stars. Written and directed by Jolie Pitt (as she credits herself here), By the Sea is set in France in the mid-‘70s and features an American couple, writer Roland (Brad Pitt) and ex-dancer Vanessa (Jolie), who try to resurrect their dying marriage in a small coastal town. Their tentative stabs at happiness are threatened by the arrival of young French newlyweds Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), whose postnuptial bliss is inescapable as they occupy the room next door. Eventually (after far too long) the reason for the American couple's misery is revealed, but not before they learn lessons about love and life from a grizzled barkeep (which sounds terrible, but, as played by Diplomacy's Niels Arestrup, the character takes on some depth) and gaze smolderingly at each other with the ravishing seaside landscape in the distance.
It’s hard not to talk about By the Sea in somewhat snarky terms, an opportunity many critics have eagerly embraced. It’s been called a vanity project of “vapid self-indulgence”; some reviews take on a strangely catty tone, as Pitt and Jolie are referred to as “tabloid hall of famers” and the film is deemed a “weepy Lifetime melodrama.” To get this out of the way, By the Sea is indeed a turgid and humorless movie that strives for the drearily glamorous modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni—a remarkably bad idea for a relatively inexperienced director. It’s much too long for its own good and lays its solemnity on very thick. It's impossible to refute accusations that the movie is self-obsessed and that it allows two of the so-called most beautiful people to hang out, naturally, in the most beautiful place in the world.
Even with these flaws, though, there is so much more to appreciate in By the Sea than there is to condemn. For her second screenplay (after In the Land of Blood and Honey), Jolie Pitt chooses to deconstruct her and her husband's ubiquitous star appeal by creating lead characters that are depressed and unapproachable. A tragic plot revelation late in the film seems almost like an afterthought; for the most part, we are asked to scrutinize Roland and Vanessa simply by observing and interpreting their behavior. (Sadly, even the names sound pretentious.) In other words, Jolie Pitt and her husband offer themselves up for public dissection, as the movie becomes defined by looks and attraction, the very rules on which film-watching is based.
Which isn’t to say these characters are entirely convincing—they’re so consumed by despair that they rarely seem more than imitations of sadness. But is that an entirely bad thing? By the Sea may not be intended as a meta-textual study on the mythical appeal of movie stars, but that’s how it plays; its aloofness almost makes it more interesting, more distanced. It is unfortunate that Jolie Pitt chose to emulate a slow, cryptic style with a fraction of the finesse seen in, say, L’Avventura, but the storytelling tropes and character types are rooted in melodrama, a genre predisposed to heightened artificiality, as evidenced by the Rossellini films above (which, again, are decidedly better than By the Sea).
Trudging through a lifeless marriage, Roland, a one-time great writer, now is a full-time drinker; Vanessa, following a formerly great dancing career, has taken to popping pills and mistrusting everyone. This sounds like a clichéd plot setup and indeed it is, but it takes on a bit more complexity if we remember that Jolie fought through a number of addictions and bouts with depression early in her career. By the Sea is presented as a hyperbole of marital distress, enacted by one of the most publicly visible married couples in the world.
Although the performances by Pitt and Jolie are too lifeless to make an emotional impact, what’s more interesting is the small moments within and between scenes—the way they try to read and analyze each other. The overall tone is not remotely subtle, but there are fleeting looks and gestures between the two stars that seem the products of a years-long relationship. So many negative reviews of By the Sea focus on its vain and arty tone without even considering that Jolie Pitt means to sabotage the notion of star, audience, and character, asking why we love to watch movie stars and how such glamorous personifications deviate from a troubling reality. (About that surname: it would satisfy me so much more to simply write Jolie, although the hyphenated credit she gives herself here at least reifies the point that By the Sea is semi-explicitly about its director’s marriage.) The movie’s self-reflexive nature only intensifies when Roland and Vanessa discover a small hole between their room and the French couple’s next door, which allows them to spy on the newlyweds having sex; the plot is propelled by this device, a small eyehole into another world that directly parallels the movie-watching experience. Although By the Sea is much too slow for its own good, that at least makes it clear that looking, being looked at, desiring but never having comprise the film’s thematic interests.
The aesthetic isn’t as profound as the movie’s funereal tone would suggest, but that’s not to say this isn’t a beautiful movie. Aided by the cinematography of Christian Berger (who has shot most of Michael Haneke’s films), By the Sea makes the most of its gorgeous scenery and ravishing actors. While the snail’s pace is unnecessary (this would have been a much stronger movie at ninety minutes) and the backstory is needlessly oblique, it’s hard to complain about sun-drenched widescreen shots of the French Caribbean, and the attempt to elicit mood and character over narrative clarity is admirable. More important, probably, is the presence of excellent French actors Arestrup, Laurent, and Poupaud, who lend a glimmer of levity to the emphatically glum proceedings.
By the Sea has already been lambasted by critics, and I’m sure the hits will keep on coming. No doubt it can be a dreary watch at times, enigmatic without purpose. But it’s also a singular self-deconstruction that proves itself to be aware of the uncanny valley between identity and character, actor and audience, public and private, the real and the artificial. It’s more fascinating than some better-made movies that achieve narrative and formal polish but have nothing going on beneath the surface. Perhaps there is resentment from critics that this Hollywood über-couple would presume to think we want a peek into their marriage, but instead By the Sea (perhaps in spite of itself) provides a peek into what it means to be a movie star—the mythical icons of the media age. In any case, while the critical assault on Jolie’s film persists, I’ll continue to enjoy pondering its surprisingly rich deformities.