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By the Sea
Universal // R // November 13, 2015
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
Power couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have become a lot more than the actors that they started out as in the public eye. They have been taking numerous roles behind the scenes over the past several years, with Pitt producing and Jolie crafting stories of her own. Plenty of actors out there try their hand at the craft of writing, directing, or producing, although they don't all fit the part. So far, Jolie has brought us In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken, both of which opened to a less than desirable critical reception. I was one of the few to actually enjoy the latter to a degree, but Jolie still has a lot to learn. Her newest feature titled By the Sea is her attempt at bringing marital drama to the big screen.
Taking place in France during the mid-1970s, Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) and her husband, Roland (Brad Pitt), decide to travel until he has written a new book. He's a writer and she was once a dancer, who used to be happy together. They seem to have gradually drifted apart over the years, but the beautiful hotel that they now reside in has forced them to deal with their issues head-on.
There have been an abundance of marital dramas over the past decade or so, making it hard for any of them to stand out. With the masterful Before Midnight hitting screens only a couple of years ago, By the Sea has a lot to deliver. However, unlike Linklater's film, Jolie has chosen a more quiet and subtle approach that teeters more on arthouse filmmaking. There actually isn't much dialogue throughout much of the duration, except for the occasional quick conversation. However, neither member of the marriage is likable. They're both portrayed as self-indulgent, as Roland turns to alcohol and Vanessa uses pills in order to cope with their marital problems. While it's incredibly difficult to relate or sympathize with them, it remains to be an interesting portrait of two individuals that aren't always good people. There are a lot of smart and subtle character details that aid in telling their stories without blatantly spoon-feeding the audience. By the Sea is certainly Jolie's most creatively-told story thus far, although that isn't necessarily saying a whole lot. However, she's definitely moving in the right direction.
Marriage is dissected in a variety of different ways by utilizing the supporting characters. The local bar keeper (Niels Arestrup) speaks of a lost love and the couple's neighbor happens to be newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent & Melvil Poupaud). The former offers a certain amount of depth that allows the audience to become interested in a story other than that of Vanessa and Roland's. However, they all intertwine from time to time, as Jolie attempts to make it all flow together into a single story. The major theme that ties it all together is that of voyeurism. Vanessa and Roland begin to bond over watching others live. They are able to find a small amount of happiness by watching the newlyweds in particular. This specific element is displayed in a way that is incredibly silly, although quite human. We all do strange things behind closed doors, and By the Sea displays it in a way that will inevitably make audiences laugh. However, it comes as an enjoyable break from the dramatic scenes.
The most disappointing aspect of By the Sea is its third act, which is all about revelations and trying to put the pieces back together. The "big reveal" is severely underwhelming, as it really didn't need to keep such a predictable reason a mystery with small snippets being utilized as obvious hints. All of the subtleties that made the film refreshing are instantly transformed into "on the nose" story elements that completely contradict the tone found in the majority of the film's running time. One word best describes Jolie's screenplay, and it is simplistic. It's never as "showy" as many were led to believe it would be, although the finale ties up loose ends in a way that is quite sloppy.
Rumored to be Angelina Jolie's last acting gig in features, she stars as one of the two leads of her own film. She plays the soft-spoken Vanessa fairly well, as she displays many of the screenplay's subtle strengths with the blank stares that portray a large amount of emotion. Her real-life husband, Brad Pitt stars as her movie husband, Roland. He also turns in a good performance, although I can't help but feel that the characters would have been easier to connect with if it weren't Jolie and Pitt. They're so recognizable, that it's difficult to see them as anybody other than themselves. They felt less like real people or characters in a movie, and more like the caricatures that we see in the tabloids. Even so, Mélanie Laurent and Niels Arestrup are particularly pleasant in the supporting roles of one of the newlyweds and the bar keeper, respectively. This is without a doubt an actor's piece that could have been capitalized on more with different lead actors.
While the screenplay undeniably has its major faults, Jolie proves once again that she's a very capable director. By the Sea utilizes a concept that was used in Before Midnight, and many films before that. The beautiful environment is supposed to contrast with the ugly nature of the distressed marriage. While not exactly original, Jolie and her team have executed it incredibly well. The cinematography is breath-taking, allowing for a lot more character and tone that wouldn't have been present otherwise. The music plays a huge role here, and it perfectly sets an atmosphere that truly immerses the audience in this lush environment, where a marriage is crumbling before our eyes.
Some of my fellow critics are being a bit harsh here. It's actually a rather engaging cinematic experience that feels so reminiscent of old European filmmaking. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt may bring their fans to their local cinema, but this isn't likely to play well for mass audiences. It certainly falls into a niche that you will either go along with, or be completely turned off by. While occasionally overly-dramatic and ridiculous, it utilizes a lot of subtleties. My biggest issue with the film is its loss of this more reserved nature in its final act in order to quickly tie up loose ends that could have been left open. By the Sea is simplistic and unlikable, yet somehow hypnotizing. Rent it.