Film review: `By the Sea´

An admirable affair, once it finds its sea legs

Set in France during the mid-1970s, we join American holiday-makers Vanessa (Jolie-Pitt), a former dancer with her glory days behind her, and her husband Roland (Pitt), a novelist whose writing has failed to gain any real traction since his first novel.

Choppy waters
Dry and humourless exchanges, peppered with irritation, signal that the couple are growing apart. When they arrive at one quiet, seaside town they begin to draw closer to some of its more vibrant inhabitants, such as a local bar/café owner (Arestrup).

With Roland’s efforts to start writing again thwarted by his penchant for drinking in the local bar and Vanessa’s insistence on staying in the hotel room to grapple with her own demons, the pair barely spend any time together. That is until Vanessa finds a hole in the adjoining wall between their room and the next. She begins to spy on a newly-wed couple (Laurent and Poupaud) as they go about their altogether different relationship. Quickly, the spying becomes a routine obsession for Vanessa, and it isn’t long before Roland catches her at it.

All at sea?
On learning of this project, two other films come immediately to mind: Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s exécrable collaboration Swept Away.

There will undoubtedly be those who deride Jolie-Pitt (as she credits herself here) for making a self-indulgent, vanity project which – with all the sighing, listless staring and smoking – admittedly feels at times like an overly long perfume ad. These are accusations that might be fair to level at the film.

Personally, I too found myself resisting the drama initially, particularly Jolie-Pitt’s performance as she languishes around the hotel room, self-consciously striking poses in an effort to emulate depression.

Plain sailing ahead
The film opens with a Serge Gainsbourg track, a retro convertible and Pitt’s pigeon French – all of which signalled a catastrophic attempt to ape Godard’s Pierre Le Fou or L’Mempris. I wanted to bury my head in embarrassment for the pair of them.

However, once the narrative unfolds, it’s clear that there is much of worth here. Once the film takes a turn for the voyeuristic, it becomes something quite unexpected, surreal even – an impression that is exacerbated all the more by this meta-voyeurism, as we too engage in what it feels like sneaking peeks into the married lives of Hollywood’s premier power couple.

Fathoming the depths
Jolie-Pitt means to challenge us, firstly by presenting us with these two beautiful human beings and then by proceeding to force your focus beyond that – to willfully falsify such a hollow preconception.

Much of what is on screen is concerned with beauty only for the purpose of stripping it away to find the ugliness and sadness beneath. This is true not only of the coastal landscape – which while picturesque feels haunted and dangerous (Malta doubling for the South of France) – but also of its director and cast, whose efforts in laying themselves so bare, ultimately win our respect.

This is because, despite moments of on-the-nose clumsiness, Jolie-Pitt is clearly fighting to communicate something of complexity and importance to her, and she’s using every weapon in her arsenal, including her husband, in order to do it.

The result is an admirable, occasionally touching and, dare I say it, genuine stab at film art.