By the Sea Angelina Jolie doesn’t care if you like her. But it’s not out of snobbery, some kind of looking down on the little people; she’s too focused, too mysterious, too fascinatingly complicated for that. It’s from a yearning to express herself, to say something about her experience, about being a movie star, about marriage, about women, about the oddity that is she (or, us, by extension), and she does so by curious means: long silences, monosyllabic responses, beautifully held frames of a life so glamorous it hurts. And it does hut -- her body beautifully in repose, a beguiling mixture of painfully thin hunger and vulnerability and yet a powerful body, a center of strength that carries itself along the ocean, skinny legs pushing forward this exquisite head and face, eyes and lips so full and wide it almost seems impossible. Bardot was this beautiful, Vitti was this beautiful, Hayworth, Dietrich, Lamar, but none were as aggressively odd as Angelina. Her beauty is so extreme it becomes peculiar, and she acknowledges her oddity with gorgeous, pained, perplexing expressions. Unafraid of being weird, at times even creepy, she’s the bizarre, beautiful woman next door (or next door at the French seaside villa), an exquisite, possibly crazy creature who could transform into Catherine Deneuve’s mad Carol Repulsion at any moment. She doesn’t, not that far, but at times the movie flirts with the idea that Angelina is dangerous. To whom, we’re not sure. Herself? Innocent bystanders? Well, yes. Of course she is. And by being so strangely powerful, so in touch with her own mixture of destruction and fragility, we begin to admire her. Some of us (myself, anyway) even like her, we like her very much. And I loved By the Sea. I loved it totally, tenderly, tragically
I should say that Angelina plays Vanessa, a former dancer ("I got old," she says) who is by the sea with her novelist husband, Roland Bertrand, played by her real-life husband Brad Pitt. But her playing Vanessa and Pitt playing Roland is a concoction of pointed real life, swoony fantasy and clear nostalgia. It takes place in the 70s, back when people used words like “barren” and tapped on red typewriters. Vanessa revels in her sadness and glamour, lounging all day in gorgeous satin nightwear in their stunningly golden French Mediterranean hotel room, donning a pair of YSL sunglasses that are always adjusted at the right angle when removed (routine? An obsessive adjustment by Roland when he can't adjust his wife? Should he?), pills endlessly popped and easier to obtain. And here’s an intriguing detail: Jolie’s mother’s father's name was Roland Bertrand.
In real life Angelina Jolie misses her mother just as the sweet French innkeeper, Michel (Niels Arestrup) who pours Roland’s drinks, misses his wife. Jolie-Pitt (who wrote and directed the hauntingly melancholic, almost painfully beautiful By The Sea, lest anyone has forgotten) wants people to know that one never gets over that loss. The loss of a wife, of a mother, of a good woman. And, yet, interestingly, Angelina doesn’t play her Vanessa as a “good woman” even if Roland, at the start, tells her she’s a good woman. By the end Vanessa even asks if she’s a bad person. Roland answers, "sometimes." What a refreshing response to hear in a movie -- no one is that simple, no one is that likable, and in the process of showing a woman in distress, a woman who manipulates and hurts, but one who is hurting herself most -- she turns the “crazy wife” narrative into something forgivable and human.
How Jolie does this through all of this insane glamour and out-of-reach beauty is testament to her power as a filmmaker. She knows how to shoot herself and her husband, she knows what we want to look at (them, the beautiful furnishings, the clothes, the cars, the ocean, the French touches, her breasts) and she knows how a languid moment and patiently-held shot can make a viewer imbue a scene with their own feelings and thoughts. The more you look at Vanessa, and her unhappy marriage with Roland, the more your mind wanders toward wondering many things, even things about your own life. In pacing, style and much of the look, Jolie appears to have studied Antonioni, Godard (Contempt, especially) and Wertmüller with By the Sea. There’s even a touch of Polanski’s Bitter Moon in here. With cinematography by Christian Berger, DP for numerous Michael Haneke pictures, and a lush score by Gabriel Yared that, at times, spikes the movie with menace (perfect for Jolie) and the music by the likes of Jacques Dutronc and Serge Gainsbourg, the picture places these American movie stars in a decidedly European art-house milieu. But to Jolie’s credit, it’s not mimicking; this is a movie all her own. Truly, you’ve never seen anything like this.
And looking is key to By the Sea. The movie rolls along: Vanessa and Roland barely speaking to one another, Vanessa staying in all day in a haze of Benzos and narcotics, Roland off to the bar to write, and never writing, Vanessa sitting on the bed crying, alone, Roland bemoaning the life of a now failed writer, with a drink, Vanessa laboring to talk to the newlyweds next door who fuck all day, Roland bonding with Michel and never fucking his wife, Vanessa walking by the water in her white skirt and enormous hat, Roland trying to touch his wife, Vanessa rejecting him… what is going on with these two? What is their sad secret? We’ll find out through more looking, but, chiefly, when they are looking.
Vanessa discovers a peephole in their hotel room and begins spying on the young couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) next door, freshly married, freshly in love, sweet, but, if anyone has been married or in a union for long enough, exhausting. Even annoying. Vanessa and Roland don’t seem to like them very much. Once Roland takes up looking with her, a kinky pursuit that turns them on, it’s easy to load their voyeurism with meaning: Jolie and Pitt are turning the tables on the public constantly staring at them. And then, to take it further, Jolie and Pitt want you to know that they might be beautiful but they aren’t perfect; they don’t get it on like the newlyweds next door, not anymore, not like they used to. Or maybe they just want you to wonder about it. Or not. Jolie writes and directs from both an intensely personal standpoint, and mystery – which is a large part of her own public persona. She is outspoken about causes and real issues personal to her, to her body, she doesn’t shield her children from the world, and yet, she maintains an enigma that we’ll never truly know her. That balancing act is her own brilliance and it’s fascinating to see her utilize it through her own direction making By the Sea her best film as a director.
But back to looking... Jolie directs by their looking and how they look. Vanessa and Roland look as, presumably, Angelina and Brad, mixing their real life, their movie star personas and their characters into this prying little kick. A life seen through a hole, a portal into another relationship, one at its most idyllic state, and one vulnerable to ruin from those who continue gawking. And, as they look, they do so with the knowledge of how we perceive them looking, their charisma ever-present while we look at them, looking. It’s a clever twist and an unexpected detail that takes the picture to another level.
And this is where Angelina is sly and even funny, for as dead serious as some think this movie is, Jolie also knows when the picture turns humorous. She jumps on the moment, almost anticipating the audiences breaking into a chuckle after a languorous sequence of near silence. Once Vanessa and Roland invite the couple out for drinks, with the intent of inebriation and more peeping, the picture treats us with shots of the two beauties preparing: Pitt brushing his hair, Angelina applying her lipstick, lit ciggie dangling out of her mouth, sweeping her hair into a perfect updo.
It’s swiftly edited to amuse us, and it does. They are dressed for battle, to pursue their perverse pleasure, and marching together hand-in-hand, we finally feel how together they are. And it’s funny. It’s funny in a few other moments too: Pitt stumbling on Jolie on the floor, looking guilty, pretending not to peep. It’s funny watching the two sitting side by side, eating dinner, laughing to themselves, the peephole between them. But then, that peephole is also opening up their own lives for examination, and the more they invade the couple’s privacy, the more we are privy to their personal pain, the sadness that lies underneath their marriage.
What’s fascinating is how Jolie addresses Vanessa handling her sadness. She doesn’t do it by simply breaking down with a speech (though that does happen, in some way, through a dramatic declaration Roland nearly slaps out of her; you wonder about how nice, long-suffering Roland is during that moment) it happens by committing an act that, in many movies, would be deemed unforgivable, the work of a femme fatale, a terrible woman. But when Vanessa moves to the side of destroyer, you feel yourself pained for her. I won’t reveal what she does, but it’s akin to Kirsten Dunst in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, fornicating with a guest on her wedding day (not to say Vanessa does the same). But the “betrayal” feels less simplistic, it feels of desperation, even a bit spaced-out, a-sexual, clinical, something to invite a release (in this case, it’s the release of Roland’s anger and making her face her anguish). Because Jolie loads up the moment with sorrow and dysfunction, there’s too much more going on here to simply demonize the woman. On screen, that feels almost radical; the act of being understanding a complicated woman.
A bit like Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (and there’s been no shortage of comparing this movie to Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and their on-screen pairings, as I did immediately upon seeing the picture’s trailer, from Woolf, to The V.I.P.s to Boom!) Vanessa is the quieter, less braying and more beautiful Martha, the childless wife who considers herself a lousy partner. But who wants to just be a wife? The verbal dexterity of Martha reveals a highly intelligent mind and wit; simply watching Jolie lounge and pose on the terrace reveals a dancer who was surely brilliant, her bitterness also belies a sharp intellect, even how disgusted she is by bad literature. She wants more out of life, she at one time, had more out of life, and now in exasperation, she lies around, beautiful and stoned. Her sweeter counterpoint (Mélanie Laurent, like Sandy Dennis in Woolf) should be careful lest she be chewed up and spit out. But, to be fair, Vanessa chews away at herself, worse than anyone.
Its exciting watching Jolie tear into it here, albeit with an abstruse, effectively strung-out touch. It harkened back to vintage Jolie, the unafraid-of-being-unlikable, crazy, brilliant and frequently funny Lisa of Girl Interrupted, though a Lisa subdued by the Seconal Vanessa pulls out of her Louis Vuitton toiletry bag. Vanessa even wears the lighter-haired wig like Lisa and smokes with the style of both a goddamn movie star and a patient demanding her smokes – the female Randle P. McMurphy skulking around the all-girl cuckoo's nest.
That dangerous charm of a Lisa ("take one fucking step closer and I'll jam this in my aorta") is still there, and all of that feral intensity and wit, just tamped down and mature. This is Jolie’s Cuckoo’s Nest Nicholson drifting into The Passenger and it’s exciting to watch, even at a valium-addled pace. What actress ever does that? What actress is ever allowed to do that? Angelina Jolie allows it, and she had to write and direct herself to do so. And if that’s considered a vanity project (as some critics have decried, some with a sexist tone to their dismissals) well, I want more of these so-called “vanity projects.” Given how little women are allowed to be complicated and interesting, fragile and strong, smart and fucked up and not always good people on film, this is a strange type of “vanity” Jolie is basking in. She’s a filmmaker, she’s a writer, she’s an actress, she’s going to make a film that is personal and a piece of herself. That’s not mere vanity, that’s expression and creation. And yet, of course there’s vanity. Most everyone possesses vanity; certainly almost all artists possess vanity. And, as By the Sea further proves, Angelina Jolie is an artist.