My expectations couldn’t have been lower for By The Sea. I figured we’d get little more than a puff piece, an indulgent, maudlin drama from Hollywood Royalty filming one of their vacations at some exotic locale.
From the studio logo at the beginning, that old and decidedly retro Universal Pictures image, we know we’re about to be bathed in nostalgia. We see said couple, Angelina Jolie and her real-life hubby Brad Pitt, tooling around as 60s French Pop drifts from their open-top Citroën roadster. It’s all perfectly pacific, even as the preposterous yet perfect hat on la femme, and the bombardier-like moustache on her beau, gives one a sense of both the fashionable and the timeless.
The couple enter a vacation chateau, ensconcing themselves as he gets to writing a novel, and she comes to terms with some inner conflict. She pops pills, he drinks, and it all goes that way for an hour.
Until, to the film’s benefit, things get a bit kinky and more than a bit voyeuristic.
It’s easy to see how the film could be shrunk down to its purest form, slicing out a large portion of the setup, but I genuinely think that this film being shorter would hurt rather than help. There’s a mood to the film, a pace that’s lugubrious and luscious at the same time. Jolie’s physicality is terrific, playing the role with a kind of felinity rarely on display by her. Her long legs stretch out, her hand cradles her giant hat as she strolls the cobbled streets. Pitt rocks an half-opened button down shirt and hipstery hat like no one’s business, making the onscreen couple exquisite from a visual standpoint.
Yet beneath the breezy beauty and stunning vistas (Malta stands in for a South-of-France setting) there’s a depth and darkness to the tale that’s quite affecting. Again, it all shouldn’t work, but there’s something completely convincing of the desires and damage at play here.
At its core the film avoids the very pitfalls that could beset it, being nothing more than a tabloid footnote about this much talked about pairing. Yet the frisson brought about by the meta-textual fact that these two really are married, really must occasional have arguments about life and love, admittedly adds a certain spice. Still, that element is hardly overwhelming, and the film is far more than simply a way for fans to sneak into the bedroom of these two and see how it all plays out.
Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud and Niels Arestrup form the rest of the core ensemble, allowing the film to drift from character to character, intersecting with our twin leads. It’s a world of a slower pace, the tides of narrative drifting in and out like the fisherman we see paddling his way both morning and at his nightly return.
This slow pace seems almost otherworldly, where a bath and a somber layabout in bed takes the position of what now would be filled with chattering tweets, constant emails and a television on the wall broadcasting something or other. It’s the quiet yet comforting seclusion of this vacation spot, mixed with the era’s desire for quiet contemplation interspersed with consumption of vast amounts of alcohol, that generates much of the film’s engagement.
The film feels out of time and of a place in a richly rewarding way. Make the whole thing in French, cast the likes of another real-life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Belucci, and you’ve got a splash at Cannes and raves from the critics. Here the film will feel for some as an intrusion, a bit of the Americans overstepping their bounds and delving into international waters not of their comfort.
I don’t begrudge writer/director/star Jolie for wanting to be Catherine Deneuve, and at its heart it seems she manages to pull off the trick with at least a modicum of success. By The Sea is an indulgence, but a welcome one, a moment of quiet respite in a very frenetic cinema season. It’s a film like they don’t often make anymore, some mid-budget studio flick with real stars free from explosions of the physical variety in favour of the emotional weaponry.
Likely to be dismissed by many, it’s a charming film that feels like a love letter to an earlier time while also toying with our contemporary proclivities. Easily Jolie’s finest work to date, the film is somewhat of a conundrum as to how it fits in to the scope of other films this season, but one that hopefully will be seen by more than those simply looking for the ribald, tabloid elements that are the least interesting things to recommend in the film.
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