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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » By the Sea (Blu-ray)
By the Sea (Blu-ray)
Universal // R // July 5, 2016 // Region A
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted August 1, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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Watch either of the trailers for By the Sea, the third film directed by Angelina Jolie (who goes by Angelina Jolie Pitt here), and almost reflexively, the phrase bubbles up: "vanity project." But why? Admittedly, the trailers themselves, which are largely free of dialogue, are edited in a way to remind the viewer that this is Art, with a capital A, and the '70s costumes and production design suggest a stylistic fetishism. Yet, when the director of a summer blockbuster cites their memories of Spielberg and Coppola, they get praised. Should Jolie Pitt deny her love of director John Cassavetes because such points of reference could be perceived as (heaven forbid!) pretentious to a casual filmgoer? Since the theatrical release of By the Sea, actress Jessica Chastain made positive waves for teaming with Juliette Binoche, Catherine Hardwicke, Queen Latifah, and others for a venture to help improve opportunities for women in film. Does Jolie Pitt's personal artistry, the drive of a filmmaker to make a film they're interested and invested in, somehow become selfish because she's one of the most famous actors on the planet?

In execution, By the Sea's ambition seems much simpler, and only selfish in that it provides Jolie Pitt with something any actor desires: a complex role. In particular, a complex role for a woman, with qualities that could not exist under conventional studio wisdom about how characters the viewer is meant to like, or at least want to keep watching, are allowed to behave. Female characters are often described as "flawed", a convenient catch-all for traits that are usually either directed inward (such as self-confidence or ambition) or surface-level (personality, or even physical coordination). Here, Jolie Pitt's character Vanessa has flaws that direct themselves outward in destructive fashion, primarily in the form of passive contempt for her husband, Roland (Brad Pitt). She instigates fights with him unprompted, waking him to accuse him of things he hasn't done, and casually criticizes his struggle getting started on a new novel, and his replacement hobby, drinking, both of which are linked to her increasing hostility toward him.

Despite Vanessa's negative attitude, Jolie Pitt captures moments of harmony between her and Roland. When they enter their hotel room, without speaking a word to each other, she helps move and arrange a writing desk for him in front of a window, while he places her makeup bag and medicine in front of a vanity in the bathroom. In a bit of visual symmetry, both of them are shown lying down, her on a chair and him on a bed, with their heads slightly tilted over the edge, legs dangling off the other corner (shots which appear before and after each one makes the same crucial discovery). Time and time again, Roland spots Vanessa's sunglasses lying on the table next to the hotel room door, and flips them over, lenses up, a subtle bit of business that suggests the differences in their personalities, and how they might complement one another. At the same time, it also artfully indicates Roland's attitude toward Vanessa's emotional struggle, which is well-meaning but weighs on her, a pointed illustration of his attempts to correct something he presumably perceives as wrong. When he tells her it might be nice if she took a walk, it's hard not to hear a chide in it, a complaint, an imposition, even though his demeanor and actions suggest he just wants her to be happy.

The tension between them is exacerbated by the arrival of another couple at the same hotel. Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) are newlyweds celebrating their honeymoon. Both Vanessa and Roland look at them and see what they no longer have: happiness, attraction, intimacy. The aforementioned discovery brings them together, momentarily: a pipe in the wall of their hotel room with nothing screwed into either end which allows them to see into Lea and Francois' room. For a moment, they live vicariously through this other couple, even attempting to manipulate them by inviting them out for a double date so that they can witness the discussion when both return to their respective suites afterward. The reprieve only lasts a moment, before it becomes clear to Roland that he and Vanessa are getting much different things out of the experience, and that placing themselves in other people's shoes fails to address their actual problems. The film builds to a climactic scene between Jolie Pitt and Pitt that contains elements many will view as overwrought or cliched, but Jolie Pitt plays the moment with conviction and sincerity. Although its effectiveness will be a matter of individual taste, dismissing it as hacky feels like an assessment of other movies rather than this one, a complaint that excuses people from acknowledging the depth of sadness and dramatic urgency of Jolie Pitt's performance. Her need to express a certain kind of sorrow is evident, and any familiarity with the devices she uses to get there is missing the forest for the trees.

As a director, Jolie Pitt further distances By the Sea from major studio concerns. Vanessa and Roland's journey is one that starts with unfulfillment, and thus, the first hour of the movie is slow and often taxing. The sense of impatience this instills in the viewer is intentional: it's the same gnawing dissatisfaction that both characters are struggling with in different ways. Vanessa spies a man in a boat, who dutifully heads in and out of the harbor, over and over again, searching for fish, and she tells Roland about it. The fisherman bothers both of them, possibly for different reasons. For Vanessa, it would seem to be the futility of the routine, the complete dissatisfaction of repeating the same motions over and over again. For Roland, it's the opposite: his inability to put his head down and focus, because he can't stop thinking about his wife's unhappiness. Much like the struggle that Vanessa and Roland are up against, By the Sea is a challenging film, one that asks the viewer to be patient, and forgiving. Personally, that sounds less like an act of artistic ego than one of artistic humility.

The Blu-ray
By the Sea arrives on Blu-ray with sepia-toned "grid of boxes" artwork that retains the original title treatment but ditches the poster artwork (not much of a surprise, given the poster didn't have Brad or Angelina's faces on it). The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite Blu-ray case (the kind with less plastic but no holes) and there is an insert inside with the UltraViolet HD Digital Copy code on it, which can be redeemed both as UV and iTunes. The entire package comes in a slipcover featuring almost the same artwork (minus the billing block and lower text on the back cover).

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 1080p AVC and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, By the Sea's muted but often gorgeous appearance and atmospheric ambiance are preserved for home video. Although much of the film takes place in the characters' seaside hotel room overlooking the ocean, there are quite a few stunning shots of the secluded beach and surrounding rock cliffs that benefit from the depth and clarity of HD, with tan landscapes punctuated by bright green bushes and grass, or the crisp, deep teal of the sea. As a modern production, the image is fairly grainless, and there are no issues with banding or noise. Dialogue-heavy films such as this have a tendency to be a little sparse in terms of the surround sound, but there are frequently intimate, whispered moments that are nicely balanced to remain audible, and in many cases, the sense of a surrounding provided by the sound mixing, whether that's the vulnerability of a wide open space or the claustrophobia of a small one, provides necessary context for the emotion and drama. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles are also included. Note that portions of this predominantly English-language film in which French is spoken also include hard-coded subtitles (which I personally find preferential).

The Extras
Three extras are included. The first two are featurettes, which are both far too short but fairly interesting. "Making By the Sea" (9:23) benefits from a lively interview with writer/director Angelina Jolie Pitt, who makes some interesting observations about her initial impressions of the script's tone, in particular, the whittling away of humor in the initial draft in favor of something more dramatic and emotionally raw. There is also a bit of talk about how the scenes seen through the pipe were shot, which is fascinating -- it makes one lament the lack of a director's commentary. The second featurette, "Gena Rowlands: An Inspiration" (4:54) is a little more than just Jolie-Pitt expanding on her love for the actor and her work with Cassavetes, but actually features footage recorded after Rowlands saw the film for herself. She speaks briefly about the movie, and also about her experiences making Shadows and A Woman Under the Influence.

The disc rounds out with a series of deleted scenes (11:46), many of which, as Jolie-Pitt noted, feel tonally out of step with the rest of the film. Only one of the scenes feels as if it might still have worked in the film, in which Vanessa meets Roland at a bar and he recites a poem. "That's sad," she says. "I like it."

The disc opens with trailers for The Danish Girl, Spotlight, Trumbo, Legend, and Sisters -- nothing like a gag about a music box getting lodged in a man's rectum to set the tone for a film like By the Sea. No theatrical trailers for By the Sea are included.

The nuts-and-bolts details of the story may seem predictable or cliched, and there are probably still some scenes, even within the movie's intentionally drawn out pacing, that are superfluous. Yet, By the Sea is also an example of two movie stars attempting to reach outside of their comfort zones, stretching themselves artistically to play complex characters in a complex story, and for those with the right temperament, the experience should be rewarding. The only disappointment with the disc is the lack of a director's commentary to really get inside Jolie Pitt's filmmaking process. Recommended.

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