By Preston Wilder
There’s an obstacle to enjoying Angelina Jolie films – I mean the ones she directs, not the ones she stars in – and that obstacle is Angelina Jolie. In last year’s Unbroken, the problem was her public persona: that was a film about victims made by someone who’s famously obsessed with helping victims, and the obsession made the film seem bombastic. Now, in this year’s (much better) By the Sea, the problem is Ms. Jolie herself, or more accurately her dual role as star and writer-director. The film is a tribute to the strangeness and mystery of Angelina Jolie – which might be fascinating, if it were made by someone else. Since it was made by Angelina Jolie, however, it can’t help but seem narcissistic.
Jolie plays a character, an ex-dancer named Vanessa, roaming mid-70s France with her husband Roland – but Roland is played by her real-life husband Brad Pitt (Jolie calls herself ‘Jolie Pitt’ in the credits) and in any case the characters are skin-deep, the film almost plotless. The film is very much about the presence of these two particular actors – and when, for instance, it dwells on Brad Pitt throwing up or taking a piss, part of the m.o. is surely the lure of an intimate, deglamourised look at the world’s most famous couple.
Roland/Brad does indeed throw up and go to the loo (he drinks too much), while Vanessa/Angelina pops pills, reads books and mopes around in their hotel room. The couple find a seaside resort in the south of France (played, very prettily, by Malta) – and there they stay, Roland at the bar where he bonds with the middle-aged patron (Niels Arestrup), Vanessa back at the hotel or taking occasional walks. Why is she sad? We don’t know – but note, for instance, how she pointedly avoids a little girl’s gaze in an early scene. Yearning for children? Motherhood on her mind? Sounds about right; she’s Angelina Jolie, after all.
The film, it must be emphasised, is heavy going. Colours are muted – Vanessa’s red handbag is a rare splash of primary colour – and the only semblance of plot comes in the second half, when the couple find a peephole in their room and spy on a younger couple next door. Before that, it’s mostly a case of Brangelina looking dapper (given how often Vanessa changes clothes, it’s amazing she has space in the hotel room for all her luggage) and smouldering quietly. Even after that, the script doesn’t find a lot of drama, though the younger couple are newlyweds and their relative bubbliness – I like being married, says the girl (Melanie Laurent); “I like belonging to something, to someone” – softens the older couple’s cynicism.
It’s not so simple, of course – because Angelina Jolie isn’t simple, that’s the point. She prowls the hotel room, curled on the floor like a cat. She whimpers, then falls on the bed sobbing. She hears moans of pleasure from next door and recoils, stabbed by two-second flashbacks. She flirts with the young man in the next room, trying to – what? What’s on her mind? Does she want to make Brad jealous? Is she purposely trying to wreck her marriage (“You’re trying to destroy us!”), and if so why? Because she wants to turn herself into a victim? Because she’s self-destructive? Because she loves him, yet – unlike the young girl next door – doesn’t want to belong to anything, or anyone?
“Can I give you some advice? Love her,” says the wise old barman to Roland, and that’s the crux here: Woman (or at least this particular woman) can’t be understood, only loved. The film is a vanity project but it has its own integrity, prizing mystery over clarity and going for a glacial ennui that’s downright arthouse (what with this and Carol, pre-Christmas filmgoers are facing some serious angst at the multiplex); the director of photography is Christian Berger, best-known for the stark, underpopulated look of Michael Haneke movies. And of course it needs to be said that Pitt and Jolie, for all their celebrity, are very strong actors – especially Pitt, who brings out the dead-inside aspects of Roland (he’s stricken with writer’s block) without wallowing in movie-star melancholia.
By the Sea is a thin little movie. The picturesque French setting – a village shop without even a cash till, fishermen mending their nets in the harbour – is rife with cliché, plot is skimpy, minor characters ditto. What it offers, however, is a woman’s honest attempt to examine herself, her demons, her marriage. Maybe she shouldn’t have bothered – especially at this length, and in this pretentious fashion – but you can’t blame her for trying. Angelina Jolie, by Angelina Jolie.