Against a backdrop of sun-drenched cliffs and sapphire seas, a gorgeous troubled couple roars into the camera frame in a silver Citroën.
Gozo Island, Malta, passed off as 1970’s French Riviera, with its labyrinthine roads, quaint grocery, cozy café and chateau, vies for beauty with the main players – Vanessa (Angelina Jolie-Pitt), an emotional wreck, has-been dancer lugging Louis Vuitton suitcases and husband Roland (Brad Pitt), a novelist with writer’s block brandishing a blood red Olivetti Valentine typewriter.
Soon enough, viewers become voyeurs in this two-hour psychodrama, which is melancholic and intimate, vainglorious and dreamlike, beautiful and cruel, languid to the point of being dull at times but raw in places, interestingly strange, even powerful.
Perhaps that’s why I found “By The Sea” so riveting.
Vanessa and Roland journey to that place “by the sea” to rediscover their marriage as they grieve over their barrenness. Water is the universal symbol for emotions. So, it could as well be the secret sea within them that they seek – feelings they hide from each other and from themselves.
Vanessa miscarried two babies and can’t be with child, so she gobbled pills instead, smoked and fantasized about suicide. There’s no more artistic outlet for her pain, she’s too old to dance, so she torments her spouse.
Roland, on the other hand, can neither rekindle his passion for his wife nor write, so he drowned his sorrow in booze, searching for solace at the bottom of the glass.
Still, they must love each other to have stayed together for fourteen years – and hated each other just as much.
Love is an extremely mutable emotion. Sometimes, the one you hold dearest is the one you most loathe. In marriage, the boundaries become hairbreadth, often nonexistent.
Vacationing in the French chateau, Vanessa and Roland slip back to the ennui of old routines despite the new setting. They bicker and mope until they decide to share the peephole on their wall, spying on the honeymooners, balling most times, in the next room.
Vanessa asks Roland if he wants to have sex with the woman, Lea (Mélanie Laurent), though in truth, she wanted to bed the man, Francois (Melvil Poupaud) – and almost did too, if Roland hadn’t caught their preliminaries from the peephole.
“By The Sea” vividly juxtaposed a stalled marriage with a new one. Of course, it showed close-ups aplenty of the lead actress-director-scriptwriter-co-producer’s high-cheek boned face, covered in wide brimmed sun hats and designer glasses and often zoomed up to her huge tragic eyes, streaking with mascara whenever she cries.
Angelina also took the opportunity to change into luxurious peignoirs for every take. She even had the defiance to flaunt her body, making the lens linger over her naked breasts in tub scenes despite her double mastectomy. Or was that a show of vulnerability?
Other times, it seems Angelina was trying to pull off a Michelangelo Antonioni, mimicking the Italian director famous for his enigmatic mood pieces and characters standing on cliffs, gazing out at sea.
In the end, the newlyweds depart the wiser, the woman devastated by the unconsummated adultery of her husband and yet pregnant with his child, so obviously, they’ll try to work it out. Roland manages to create a novel out of his pain and drives away with his wife, their fourteen-year marriage intact, despite the near-meltdown.
Critics say “By The Sea” is the ultimate vanity film, Angelina directing her husband and herself in a script she wrote ten years after their first pairing onscreen as married assassins in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”.
But it’s no mean feat directing your hubby and yourself. Angelina and Brad are both good actors. And the only material actors work with is themselves. Needless to say, they have to harness emotions they experienced in their own marriage – which came near to breaking several times.
As could be expected, Angelina denies the film’s too close to home. “It’s not autobiographical. Brad and I have our issues. But if the characters were even remotely close to our problems, we couldn’t have made the film.”
She wrote “By The Sea” to explore grief, after her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, died of cancer almost a decade ago, before she actually started directing films. “It wasn’t something I thought Brad and I would ever do together. So I wrote with a degree of freedom.”
“Relationships have extremes,” she went on, “You can be weeping on the floor, then 20 minutes later you can be laughing about something bizarre. This film is an extreme version of that. You can be madly in love with the same person that you sometimes feel like killing. You can be giddy and silly, and also depressed and miserable with them. Things don’t perfectly make sense and wrap up.”
Nevertheless, she conceded, “Brad and I have ten years of history and it all fed into these performances. It was challenging to use all of the intimacy toward your partner,to challenge and push each other and fight to make things better. You pull out something from one another that feels very different.”
‘It’s the kind of movie we love but aren’t often cast in. It’s a very experimental, independent-type film where we get to be actors together and be really raw, open, try things.”
After all, “Our job as actors is to make it more personal,” Brad pitched in. “Making it that personal, it becomes blurred. We have such history and mutual respect, as well as expectations of each other and our family.”
“It was one of the most challenging things I’ve taken on,” he acquiesced. “But at the same time, there’s been a great freedom in that because we can experiment and play. It was oddly a safer environment than any set I’ve been on before. And so, we let loose.”
“By The Sea” depicts the story of three, not two couples, at different stages in their lives, from Brad’s viewpoint.
The village locals, Michel (Niels Arestrup) and Patrice (Richard Bohringer) have forged a friendship enriched by their experiences. Newlyweds Lea and Francois are excited by the potential of the future while Roland and Vanessa are in the second stage of love, the point where the relationship can either shatter or grow stronger.
“Most would probably divorce in Vanessa and Roland’s circumstances, but for that central idea of commitment to someone to whom you’ve dedicated yourself,” Angelina noted.
“Marriage isn’t easy. But you know you’ve made that commitment. You have history. You know why you’re with that person. There’s comfort in it. One person may want to give up more than the other. But it takes one to keep it alive, as Roland does in our film.”
“When you meet Roland, you assume he’s a bully and a drunk, irritated with Vanessa, focused only on himself and his writing. You also assume she’s focused on the way she looks, doesn’t like people and is above it all,” Angelina elaborated.
However, “Vanessa is on prescription meds at a time when most people didn’t know what depression was. Then, you discover there’s a reason why they’re avoiding each other, why they have a lot of anger. They’ve been sitting on something for a very long time. They’ve never addressed it. They’re in so much pain, they take it out on one another.”
Oddly, peeping into the newlyweds in the next room served a healing function. “Being aware of other people, studying others allowed them to forget themselves for a bit so they rediscover each other,” she reasoned.
“Roland and Vanessa are searching to get over the hill of grief,” was how Brad saw it. “Roland is searching to reconnect because he is losing her. The neighbors next door are a device, at least momentarily, that allowed our characters to start to feel like they’re rebuilding some semblance of who they were.”
Melanie, who played the honeymooning new wife Lea, maintained she was “really impressed” with Angelina.
“She’s acting at the same time she’s directing. She directs actors like an actress. We speak the same language. She’d ask, ‘Do you need this? Are you comfortable with this, or do you want to talk about that?'”
“It’s audacious for her to have undertaken this rather nonconformist, experimental project,” commented Niels. “It will be a great surprise for the public to discover her doubts, insecurities and fragility as well as her courage and strength to live.”
Overall, it’s two hours of vacation, voyeurism plus celebrity marriage therapy. Then the golden couple drives off in their sports car much like the way they bulleted in the beginning, except for Vanessa’s tender touch on Roland’s arm – a hint at some kind of resolution – or the hope of it.
But it’s the kind of experiment that megabucks celebrity pairs like Angelina and Brad can afford to make.
“By the Sea is not intended to be a commercial film,” Angelina underscored.
“It’s been a long time since I felt free to create and play, to be irreverent and inappropriate. I wanted something where I could be bold and not have it fit into something that needed to be sold a certain way. As an artist, you want to try things and avoid safe choices.”
Ultimately, “We hope it will be enjoyed by people seeking a different, perhaps more challenging, cinematic experience.”