Thursday, September 24, 2015

By the Sea

Widely dismissed as a vanity project for its photogenic stars, this serves as the artsy European flipside to Mr & Mrs Smith, the enjoyably brash Hollywood smash-em-up that first spawned the Brangelina behemoth. Where Doug Liman’s 2005 action film found the couple trying to kill each other while falling in love, this finds them trying not to kill themselves while falling out of love. The 70s-set story largely unfolds in a lavish hotel suite in the scenic south of France (actually Malta), where blocked writer Roland (Brad Pitt) hits the bottle when given the cold shoulder by the medicated Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt, also writing and directing). But when attractive newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) move in next door, a spy hole in the wall awakens dormant desires that blend voyeurism and revenge, with underlying grace notes of grief. There’s a hint of the psychopathy of The Comfort of Strangers or Blue Velvet as these dead souls play Peeping Tom with the living embodiments of their past, but Jolie Pitt is clearly aiming more for the spirit of Bergman, Buñuel or Antonioni. Sadly, away from the war zones of In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken, she becomes somewhat becalmed and we end up more focused on Vanessa’s symbolically entombing Liz Taylor/Sophia Loren wardrobe than the emotional battlefields of the bedroom. As for the couple’s long-withheld secret, its eventual revelation is appropriately anticlimactic.

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By The Sea, the new vanity project from celebrity power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, is full of beautiful people, beautiful scenery, beautiful music, beautiful clothes, beautiful cars, and beautiful hotels full of beautiful furniture on which these beautiful, famous posteriors can rest. But despite being surrounded by deep blue Maltese waters, quaint taverns operated by quainter barkeeps, and perfectly photogenic baguettes dusted with just the right amount of flour, no one in this movie is happy. If they are, just wait.

The ennui of the wealthy has been explored to the point of cliché in European arthouse cinema, the clear entry point for Jolie’s latest directorial effort. In particular, she seems to have been inspired by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, which, in practical terms, means a lot of standing on cliffs and looking out at the sea. That reflects more on Jolie than Antonioni, however, because despite her use of recurring visual themes—He flips over her sunglasses because he loves her! His lighter doesn’t work because the spark is gone from their relationship!—she seems more concerned with looking good than saying anything too deep.

Looking physically good, that is. Her character, a former dancer named Vanessa who’s recovering from some sort of devastating emotional blow for most of the movie’s 122-minute running time, is a narcissist who doesn’t seem to care how her cutting remarks and self-pity hurt her husband, Roland (Pitt). He’s not very nice either, a floundering novelist who, day after day, tries and fails to find inspiration at the bottom of a bottle. He drinks, she mopes, they smoke—the film is set sometime in the mid-20th century, when everyone smoked—they get up the next day and do it all again, never looking each other in the eye.

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