- The Washington Times - Friday, November 13, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION

At least once a week I will espy a look on my girlfriend’s face of what I believe to be displeasure, and thus naturally follows my typical query: “Are you mad at me?” The answer, as often as not, is in the negative, and in fact I was nowhere within her cerebral firings at the moment in question. Such a transaction usually takes 10 seconds or less.

Now imagine the same such transaction stretched out to two hours with Hollywood’s biggest power couple stranded together in one of the most beautific settings on Earth. Does it matter that the couple are played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (here billed as Angelina Jolie Pitt), spouses in real life, or that Miss Jolie is directing from a screenplay she herself wrote and filmed on the glorious Mediterranean? Would you care anymore about them than about any other couple played by other actors? I suppose it depends on the couple, be it fictitious or otherwise.

In “By the Sea,” opening Friday, Mr. Pitt and Miss Jolie star as Roland and Vanessa — he a frustrated writer and she a failed dancer who “got too old” for the stage. To attempt to put their ailing marriage back on track, the American couple travels to the French Riviera (substituted here by picturesque Malta) to hole up in a seaside inn run by an avuncular Frenchman (Niels Arestrup).

What precisely are they doing there? The film is vague on details — chiefly how two seemingly unemployed Yanks can afford a lengthy stay in such an exotic European locale, something I suspect Brangelina never paused to consider given their collective fortunes — but the couple soon enough settles into a lackadaisical routine: Roland drinks and drinks like Hemingway while trying to write like Elmore Leonard, while Vanessa perpetually glares at him from across the room with her arms crossed.

The unsubtle hint is that Vanessa is dreadfully, terribly, oh so unhappy. Her reasons for such anger with Roland are nebulous at best. Flashbacks of “something” from her past are seen in brief glimpses rather than simply being alluded to. As with many of the other problem elements in “By the Sea,” the film suffers from a case of too much underlining and bolding, spelling things out for the viewer rather than trusting the audience enough to come to understand what the characters are feeling and why. It seeks our empathy without earning any sympathy.

“By the Sea” is a vanity project disguised as a kitchen sink domestic melodrama. Miss Jolie showcased a deft director’s vision in last year’s “Unbroken,” but there she was behind the camera only. “By the Sea” brings not only her star power to the table but puts her real-life relationship with Mr. Pitt front and center in a film that asks us to believe they are but ordinary people. Mr. Pitt, so glorious at playing oddballs and outcasts, here is shoehorned into a miscast role whose job it is to huff and puff and beg Vanessa to come out of her shell while self-medicating with booze. Miss Jolie, so watchable elsewhere, gives herself a largely thankless role that drains the charisma from her face and the sparkle from her onscreen charms. I suppose she could be said to be “brave” for giving herself so many nude scenes when, as director, she need do no such thing, but a film like this breathes upon soul-baring rather than skin-showing.

Miss Jolie seems to be attempting a European-style domestic melodrama in the vein of Antonioni or Bergman, but those venal sins pale in comparison to the cardinal transgression of aping not one but two different Hitchcock films in one. For upon checking into their hotel, Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall through which she can peep into the neighboring room, through which she spies on a young French couple (Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent, the latter of whom co-starred with Mr. Pitt in “Inglorious Basterds”) engaging in frequent and rather energetic honeymoon sex. While she has the salacious appeal of voyeurism right, Miss Jolie has forgotten to apply its necessary guilt accompaniment, in which the Master of Suspense trafficked as a necessary consequence.

Vanessa makes it her twisted mission to befriend the couple, Francois and Lea, again, for reasons that, when they are finally revealed, elicit little more than a yawn. Fortunately, Mr. Poupaud and the delightful Miss Laurent do their assignments well, gifting the French couple Francois and Lea with a vitality and a believability that is both counterpoint to Roland and Vanessa’s middle-aged ennui as well brings into sharp relief how fiercely pained Miss Jolie and Mr. Pitt go to make their own fictional avatars tragic figures. (Hint: If your marriage is on the rocks, engage in shared acts of voyeurism.)

Lest I sound too cranky, I must say that “By the Sea” is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year. Austrian cinematographer Christian Bergeruses utilizes the ambient light of his Maltese sun to create painterly compositions of astonishing beauty, bringing to full liveliness the European setting as the cameraman fully fleshes out the sunlight’s skipping off the azure waves of the Mediterranean. As Miss Jolie ambles along the shoreline, it is one of the few moments of true losing oneself in the masterly mise en scene.

A vanity project like this lives or dies by its ability to produce empathy for its characters. The final reveal, such as it is, will surprise little and force absolutely no one to re-examine all that came before in the two hours’ running time. Once again, rather than allusion, the audience must finally — finally, at long last, God save us — be told directly and in precise language the root of the couple’s troubles in Act III, the reason Vanessa tortures herself, Roland and their French neighbors. If Edward Albee is still writing, I nudge Miss Jolie to seek his services as a script doctor in future work. (That’s about as big of a hint as I will give as to the source of Vanessa’s misery.)

Rated R: Contains nudity, marital yelling, spying on other marital bedroom coupling and topless sunbathers in the vicinity of small children (gasp).

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