That Angelina Jolie-Pitt asks us to remove what we know about Brad and Angie from our feelings for a film about a couple embroiled in an emotional tangle is maybe a little naive on her part. They have always used their celebrity to bring attention to the right causes, and for the films they’re involved in – we get parsed versions of their personal life from them, and an often dubious encyclopedia of their personal life from the gossip columns. There are some celebrities who are simply too big, too embedded in our collective minds that that they can never disappear into a role the way most actors can. This would include larger than life personalities like Barbra Streisand, Madonna and now Angelina Jolie. So it is with inevitable overlay of knowledge about the icon that people will watch By the Sea.
I tried hard to separate what I knew about her and about him and about them while watching the film. Impossible. I then tried to imagine the same film starring unknowns – would it have been enough to hold our attention? A film that meditates on the grief of one woman for two hours? I then tried to imagine if a man had directed it, or someone I admired as an established auteur. Would I still see the film the same way? My conclusion was that I know too much about Angelina and Brad – even while probably knowing nothing, really – to be able to divorce them from their celebrity. Which is kind of a shame because there are some really great moments in By the Sea.
It seemed at first like maybe a meditation on Marcheline Bertrand’s break from Jon Voight when Angelina was a child – how her beloved mother had sacrificed her acting career for first her husband (who cheated on her and then left the family) and then for her children, on whom she devoted every ounce of love and attention. It’s clear Jolie’s loss of her mother is her greatest tragedy, the hardest thing she ever went through and a thing she had to work through artistically, which is what I thought By the Sea would be about. It takes place in the 1970s, she’s speaking in that soft little girl voice she once attributed to her mother on the press tour for Changeling, and Pitt is looking very like ’70s Voight. But something changed, or maybe changed, in the creative process between the script that she wrote after her mother’s death and the film she made with Pitt last year. That change seems to have shifted the narrative in an odd direction, one that doesn’t fully hold water.
We meet Vanessa (Jolie-Pitt) who stares off into space, pops pills, drinks, and can’t stand to have her husband touch her. Her husband (Pitt) drinks, doesn’t write, and spends his time trying to touch or connect with his wife. What is wrong between them is not understood at first but our suspicions come to fruition by the film’s end. That unexpected shift seems to have more to do with Jolie’s radical mastectomy and hysterectomy more than it does her mother’s having been left by her father. The two stories seem to have merged to create By the Sea.
The best part of the film is nothing to do with Brad and Angie, though they both give heartfelt, honest performances. It’s clear that they trust each other, love each other deeply and are willing to do anything for each other. That’s kind of a great thing to see on screen. The secondary couple, the beautiful young French marrieds who move in to the room next to them, represent the film’s best dramatic tension where Jolie’s finest moments as a director can be found.
Abetted by cinematographer Christian Berger, her camera eye both literally and figuratively captures Melanie Laurent’s body in such a fascinating way (Jolie and Pitt spy on their sex-entrenched neighbors) – it made me wish the whole film was about Laurent’s character. That we have to keep coming back to Jolie and Pitt’s depressing, go-nowhere narrative is the film’s ultimate problem. Jolie is almost there as a director. She’s getting better with each film. Her strengths are in the realm of the perverse yet she seems to back away from this. She ought to take her cues from people like David Cronenberg and Ken Russell because one thing Angelina Jolie will never be as an artist is conventional.
I would take no delight in deriding her ambition for making this film. Enough people did that with Madonna, Oprah and maybe with Streisand. There is just something delicious about taking down a woman who has so much. Instead I would say that By the Sea is a beautiful film to watch and worth the time to see what she’s turned up. It isn’t a great movie – it might not even be a good movie but there’s something about watching beautiful people in beautiful places that makes cinema what it is.
As Angelina stood up on a platform after the screening and endured questions and handshakes from admirers – probably many of them telling her how much they loved her movie just so that they could get a second with her – she looked big and tall and formidable, the opposite of the character she plays in By the Sea. This Angelina, the one who can command the room, is the one who won’t be taking a fall any time soon, no matter what people say about her when she’s not standing right in front of them.