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By the Sea
In previews, By the Sea was cinematic catnip for just about everyone. It had everything: aqua French coasts, whiskey-swilling writer bros, Angelina Jolie-Pitt, unhappily married people fighting, alcohol, pills.
Sorry, I’m being droll. This isn’t to say that Angelina Jolie Pitt’s written/directed/starring in passion project about Vanessa, a former dancer, and Roman (Pitt), a Male Writer, isn’t stunning, because it is—everything the two trailers promised is given threefold. It’s a gorgeous look at a French seaside town—full of sloping hills, crooked stone steps and streets, and the palatial suite, all marble and mirrors. It’s crammed full of beautiful people, not just Jolie Pitt and Pitt, whom the camera loves and leaves looking somehow more beautiful through a sheen of depression and alcoholism. It’s aesthetically lush across the board, so much so that it left my co-worker craving a cheese plate by the film’s end.
Despite Jolie Pitt being able to literally evoke cravings through her visuals, By the Sea is a slog of a domestic drama about two beautiful married people who just can’t make it work. It feels tedious throughout its drawn out pauses, alcohol soaked silences and screaming fits. Considering how much chemistry we’ve seen Jolie Pitt and Pitt share in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (not that they don’t sizzle here as well), Vanessa and Roman’s marital troubles feel surprisingly flat, until the film takes a turn midway that hints back to Jolie Pitt’s dark ‘90s roots, before she became a mother and a humanitarian. Only in this moment can you see what Jolie Pitt should be doing as a director—delving further into the darker, weirder kinks of the human experience, not just working for Oscar glory.
The movie was sold as a ‘70s-esque Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, perhaps with less teeth, but still teeming with rage. Instead the troubles of Roman and Vanessa’s marriage almost feel like a dull microwaved parody of marital melodramas. The couple have taken this last-ditch vacation in the hopes of repairing their marriage (reasons for why it’s broken aren’t immediately revealed, but you can certainly guess!) and to provide Roman inspiration for his Male Thoughts (which he can’t currently tap into). What follows is again a very pretty 132 minutes that are filled with Roman drinking and not writing and Vanessa chain smoking and looking tearily glamorous through her huge ‘70s YSL shades. The pair gets into screaming matches over ONE BIG ISSUE that the audience is not yet privy to (still haven’t guessed?). They rarely touch, unless it’s her kicking his whiskey-drunk ass in the bed or sharing a rare depressing teary shower. Watching them exist is a chore, but at least it’s a beautiful chore.
But midway through the film, there’s an interesting shift. A young newlywed couple Lea and François (Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) arrive for their honeymoon, booking the room next door. They are immediately presented as being light years away from Roman and Vanessa: François is always shirtless and wearing a casual tassel necklace and Lea is all blonde sunshine. More than anything, they are completely, utterly in love and infatuated with one another, and they don’t care who sees it.
Who’s seeing it—ALL of it? Vanessa, who has discovered a random/convenient peephole that looks into Lea and Francois’ room. Suddenly a woman obsessed, Vanessa’s new hobby is to watch Lea and Francois lounge in bed together, get dressed to go to the cafe, and fuck all the time. She’s suddenly more alive seeming, instead of the catatonic chain smoker with smudgy (but again, glamourous) eyeliner all over her face. It’s a new hobby that quite well could help Vanessa’s depression (in the weirdest of ways). But when Roman gets in on the action, it’s a plot development that can’t be written off.
This, say, 45-minute stretch in the middle of the movie, is kinky, odd and fascinating. Watching Lea and François fuck, the disillusioned couple settles into a new routine, sharing meals and bottles of wine while looking through the peephole at the pair that the years haven’t devastated yet. It’s a salve to help repair their marriage, and it sort of works, even after Roman requests that they go cold turkey from watching the flexible exploits of nubile flesh. They are seemingly on a healing path.
And then By the Sea dives back into where it began, with more of Roman’s whiskey-fueled writerly angst and Vanessa’s crying fits, now on an even more destructive path. By the time the final act plays out, most plot points have been guessed and even the biggest fans of over-the-top melodrama will be exhausted. But that surprising middle stretch lingers as perhaps something Jolie-Pitt should do more of.
While Jolie’s public persona for a long time now has been associated with being a mother, wife, and global ambassador—an all around good person—she used to be known as a wild child for both her personal antics and her roles in films like Gia and Girl, Interrupted. This shift in Angelina’s public perception also could be seen in the films she’s directed, In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken. Both about the havoc of war in different ways, the movies are each fairly standard, overt awards-bait films. While certainly a different genre, By the Sea, seemed poised to do the same but will almost definitely fall flat on its awards dreams.
But those weirdly sexy 45 minutes, where Vanessa and Roman indulge their basest desires while they giggle over too loud pours of wine and a fanciful meal spread at their feet, just enjoying each other in an admittedly odd way—that’s where Jolie Pitt needs to focus. Not on awards or prestige. Jolie should indulge her darkest desires and kinks (remember when she wore Billy Bob Thornton’s blood in a locket?) in whatever she writes and directs next because when we’re looking through that peephole with Roman and Vanessa in By the Sea, that’s where we feel closest to Jolie Pitt’s truest (and best) spirit.