Being brave, both on a personal and on a creative level, isn’t always the easiest thing to do.
With By The Sea, Angelina Jolie crafts a raw, emotional affair that sees her tackling her recent health scare and double mastectomy in a uniquely engaging way that while imperfectly riffing on the works of Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman gives us a very non-Hollywood story from two of the world’s bigger movie stars.
It’s the 1970’s as Roland (Brad Pitt), an American writer is driving around the Mediterranean Sea with his wife Vanessa (Jolie) looking for inspiration, not only in his work but in his life as his marriage is on the brink of collapse. They stop in this idyllic coastal town, looking for anything to cure what ails them. As they spend time apart, discovering the village and its inhabitants they are drawn to their fellow travellers and neighbours at the hotel; newlyweds Lea & Francois (Melanie Laurent & Richard Bohringer). While Roland is a drift in a mess of frustration and pity, Vanessa is on a self destructive bent and the more they both get entangled in the lives of these newlyweds the more they are forced to confront the issues in their own lives.
In what has to at least be an “A” for effort, By The Sea is a stunning and stark emotional tale that draws some obvious influences from the French New Wave and shows how Jolie just might have some genuine talent as a story teller going forward.
Coming from her dreadful debut, In The Land of Blood and Honey and the at least passable Unbroken, this film shows off a brave visual style that she is very obviously ‘borrowing’ from the likes of Jean Luc Godard and others she makes it work as she channels a very personal story into this framework. It has a lush yet languid pace and anyone who might be expecting something a little more “Hollywood” will be VERY disappointed. It’s the kind of narrative that you have to let unfold and even wash over you. Of course the obvious self-indulgencies are hard to avoid, but in fairness to Jolie they aren’t supposed to be. This is less an exercise in entertainment then it is in art and with a reasonably modest $10 million dollar budget, Jolie has free range to show what exactly she can do and to be quite honest, it’s more than a little impressive. She makes the flaws that most inexperienced filmmakers can make, she lingers a little too long, and the narrative and the script flat out drags despite the ultimately positive place that she takes us. If you’ll pardon the expression, it is made very much like her shit simply doesn’t stink and has the obvious airs of entitlement, but the talent is there.
The script is equal parts clumsy and sharp as she mirrors this failing marriage ever so slightly to events that have happened in her life and her recent health scare. Her Vanessa is broken and doesn’t feel like a woman and in the 1970’s culture that is almost reason enough for her to blow up her entire existence, while Roland is a fairly evolved guy who still has to struggle through the “why” of everything that is happening around him. It’s rare to see a story that is so awkward and yet so engaging at the exact same time and while in many ways the subtlety and nuance of this love story that she is trying to tell is beyond her skill as a storyteller, the essence of her obvious inspirations is still there and she pulls off thanks to some raw performances.
Both her and Brad bring their “A” Game to the material as Pitt captures the nuances of an emotionally lost, creative soul looking for something, dare I say anything to put his life back on track. He anchors the movie with world weary wit and charm, we sympathize when he is getting drunk alone at the bar, charmed at the tiny moments he shares with his wife and engaged when he is fighting for someone that he loves who is very slowly destroying herself. Jolie matches him with a bare and raw honesty as her Vanessa is more confused than genuinely self-destructive; she just lacks the ability to understand anyone else experiencing any kind of joy around her. Melanie Laurent & Richard Bohringer are fine in support as the other couple and the great Niels Arestrup who plays sage local bistro owner Michel is the only one who gets any moments to shine against Pitt & Jolie who command every moment of the screen like genuine movie stars should.
The narrative comes from a harsh place, but it never forgets about those things just underneath the veneer of it all which in actuality are the things we find the most fascinating. It’s why By The Sea actually kind of works and allows us to get past the knee jerk reaction of seeing two beautiful people making what on the surface looks like a vacation, vanity project. It is so much more as it invites us to look behind the curtain of a life on the brink of unravelling.