By the Sea was always going to present itself as a challenge to pretty much anyone who encountered it. How could it not? A very personal and artful piece made by the most glamorous Hollywood couple imaginable, with the wife directing and the two magnetic personalities producing and starring, it’s clear that both Angelina Jolie-Pitt and Brad Pitt wanted to do something serious as artists with this Euro-flavored and retro-tinged relationship drama. And even if it didn’t really say anything new for this well-traversed milieu, the exquisite production values, strong performances, and erudite sense of direction by Jolie-Pitt, who definitely proves that she’s a film scholar and admirer of contemplative and provocative items from yesteryear, make this well worth watching. Set off the stunning coast of France and feeling as if it were set in the early 70’s, By the Sea explores a damaged marriage between a mentally fractured wife (Jolie-Pitt), racked with jealousy and suspicion as her drunkard, failed-writer husband (Pitt, with sleazy mustache) has seemingly had some sort of affair of the flesh if not the heart.
They attempt to reconcile at a glorious hotel right along the ocean, and become almost immediately distracted by the alluring couple sharing the room next door, a vivacious pair on their honeymoon (the beyond sexy Melanie Laurent and super-handsome Melvil Poupaud), who are prone to frequent sexual adventure that can be spied upon via a secret hole in the wall. This is a film where sex and intimacy are essentially at the crux of its themes, and in this department, Jolie-Pitt pulled a 70’s and said, hey, they’re just breasts, let’s get some skin on screen, and show some passionate onscreen lovemaking. All of this is captured by the estimable cinematographer Christian Berger (The White Ribbon), who mainly utilized natural light during filming, and was able to capture one radiant and luscious image after another. Ellen Mirojnick’s stylish yet smartly subdued costumes suggested great wealth and taste, rather than empty tackiness. Jon Hutman’s elegant and extra-classy production design seals the entire aesthetic package with a golden bow.
As with any film about infidelity, there comes a point in the narrative where the two emotionally challenged leads must explode, and while this happens to a certain degree in By the Sea, I was surprised by how calm and measured everything was, and how it didn’t resort to easy histrionics in order to make its point. The film explores grief from both sides, and because Pitt’s husband character is so quiet and introverted (and half in the bag or totally wasted), you do wonder at times what he’s thinking, which is a nice thing for the viewer to not have it all spelled out. Pitt has easily become one of the most underrated actors of his generation, continuing to etch one distinctive performance after another. Jolie-Pitt gets to show why she’s one of the most exotic women ever to be filmed by a camera, as she smartly used her real-life persona to create an image in everyone’s head of exactly the sort of tortured soul she was presenting on screen.
And when it comes to their big love scene, while I think it could have been even more bold in terms of the on-screen action, they projected a carnal sense of passion that needed to be explored within the terms of the story. I think what surprised me the most about By the Sea was how sedate it was when compared to the film’s rather morose theatrical trailer which seemed to promise a much more overwrought viewing experience. The ending is also rather surprising given all that’s come before it, and feels almost out of place considering the heavy lifting that had preceded the final beat. Critics had their knives sharpened because that’s what paid movie critics get to do, be snarky and flippant and bitchy, and I think it’s a joke how this movie was treated by its distributing studio, and by the apparent taste-makers who should be discussing a provocative adult drama that actually has something on its mind rather than relegating it to also-ran status.