By the Sea

By the Sea

2015, R, 132 min. Directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt. Starring Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 20, 2015

This movie won’t be for everyone; you’ll need to dive back into European arthouse cinema from the Sixties to find anything quite like it. It’s far from the real-life Brangelina sideshow we’ve all come to know in recent years, but the world-famous married couple can’t be completely disentangled from By the Sea. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt, she also co-stars with husband Brad Pitt as a married couple going through a rough patch. To a certain extent, we will always wonder where the fiction begins and the Pitts stop.

Although that surface attraction lures us in, By the Sea deserves to be viewed as an original piece of fiction, a filmmaker’s labor of love that was greatly enabled by the participation of her movie-star husband. This couple is no Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton braying at the moon as George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) and Roland (Pitt) in By the Sea are a 14-years-married couple, whose unhappiness with themselves bleeds over into their relationship with each other. She’s a former dancer with hints of a trauma in her past; he’s a blocked novelist who’s never matched the success of his first book. Once upon a time they were the glamorous toast of the New York art world; now they are limp shells of their former selves. He imbibes gin for breakfast while intending to write; she swallows pills and stares off into the distance. They do not love, they do not hate; they co-exist.

Set sometime in the Seventies, the film begins as the couple arrives at a lovely and remote hotel on the Côte d’Azur. Days pass as they establish their routines: he dutifully failing to write, she staring and moping, both of them looking exquisite as they do so. Then an infusion of energy arrives in the form of a hole in the wall where they can surreptitiously view the sexcapades and daily routines of the newly married couple (Laurent and Poupaud) in the room next door. The couple that peeps together keeps together, as some wag might say of Roland and Vanessa.

It’s easy to imagine Michelangelo Antonioni behind the viewfinder, conducting this fastidious state of ennui, and Ernest Hemingway at the typewriter, slamming out little spurts of devastating dialogue and existential morass. There’s even an old fisherman who serves as the film’s central metaphor. Jolie Pitt’s artistry doesn’t fully rise to these levels (which is hardly a putdown). She needs to learn more about making her camera scratch beneath the surface gloss. Nevertheless, she’s made a movie that’s incomparable with anything else that’s being produced these days. No small feat, that.

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By the Sea, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup

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