Wednesday, August 17, 2016

All We Can Do

“Most people live in the past,” declares one character in Angelina Jolie Pitt’s BY THE SEA. And it’s true. We spend way too much time in our head on nostalgia, on regret, on those moments when everything came so close. I’d be more than happy to erase whole chunks from my memory but that’s not going to happen. BY THE SEA is set in the past, somewhere in the mid-70s to be more specific, and it feels like it’s made by someone who wants to live in that version of the past, of Antonioni films, of Bergman, of Godard, of what we think of as the glamour prevalent in that age. The film even opens with the early 70s scope Universal logo, as if the entire two hours represents a dream of the opportunity to go back and make movies then. BY THE SEA was either ignored or trashed by most when it opened, barely, back in November 2015 and next to no one outside of the excellent writer Sheila O’Malley said anything positive about it at all. Maybe it was the wrong film at the wrong time, maybe people aren’t looking for that sort of tortured glamour these days, even, or maybe especially, if it does involve Brad & Angie. Now that the Blu-ray is out there, I’m already finding myself returning to it over and over, to a film which is clearly nakedly personal but also, let’s face it, a dream of films that just aren’t made anymore. And I’m finding myself more than willing to live inside it. In many ways, we have no choice but to live in the past, to return to those moments we have guilt over, that we know deep down are our own fault. That’s part of what films are anyway.
Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt), married 14 years, arrive at a remote seaside hotel in France. Roland, once a successful writer, plans to write a new book there while Vanessa, a former dancer, plans to do nothing at all. As Roland drinks more than he should and accomplishes little aside from his conversations with local café owner Michel (Niels Arestrup), the bored Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall connecting to the next room over where honeymooning couple Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) are staying. Fascinated by the younger, more exciting couple while her relationship with Roland gets even worse, Vanessa becomes obsessed with watching them through that hole as much as possible. But when Roland finds the hole himself it draws the two closer together and it leads them to getting friendly with that couple, taking whatever game they’re playing a step further towards finally confronting what has happened in their own past.
Roland and Vanessa barely say a word to each other, rearranging their hotel room to suit their needs without speaking. They don’t need to talk and don’t seem to want to but they remain with each other even when they’re apart, one of them trying to write (but mostly drinking), the other hiding in their room in despair, gazing out at the view, gazing at the fisherman who returns to the sea each day. Never in a rush, BY THE SEA settles into this vacation from the world and the days seem to go by in a blur, one spilling into the next. For a while the two of them remain defiant in their quiet hostility towards each other and what they once were, Roland insisting “I was a fucking writer” almost defensively as if to remind himself but also because he knows that Vanessa is waiting to spit back at him that he’s more of a drunk now. And she has even less than that—she even answers a question of what she does since she stopped dancing by simply saying, “nothing” and there’s nothing to replace it for her so even the smallest tasks, leaving their hotel room for a few minutes to walk down that ‘ridiculous hill’ for groceries, seem monumentally absurd to her.
As director of the script that she wrote, Angelina Jolie Pitt doesn’t film the movie as an extension of what her character sees and she isn’t simply playing an alter ego, not in the way that any number of famous star/directors we can think of might. It’s a woman who has nothing to say to anyone but the barest of pleasantries, staying so inside her own bubble that she’s baffled by the strange new sensations of the sounds and smells of where they are. Unlike her, the film itself seems curious about everyone and has a fondness towards them, like that young girl smiling at Vanessa in the grocery store or the charming old couple who tell Roland they’ve been together over fifty years, wanting to simply observe and hold on them for a few extra seconds, quietly luxuriating in the moments of the day. The direction is always alert to these characters, the camera always seems to know where it should be to observe them and there’s a discipline to it, an economy to what shots are held as if it knows when we should keep our distance. The environment all around the hotel is completely tangible to us, the welcoming vibe of the café on the water where Roland spends much of his time or even the fetishizing of their accessories like Roland’s red portable typewriter, clashing with all the more soothing color schemes around them as if an alert from the outside world of what he’s not doing while having gin for breakfast. UNBROKEN, Jolie Pitt’s previous film as director, felt noble but also a little anonymous and maybe held back on where the true drama in the story’s redemption lay. In comparison BY THE SEA always feels thoughtfully elegant in its choices, with a pacing that almost feels musical at times. There’s a deliberate feel to how long the shots are held with editing by Martin Pensa and Patricia Rommel that plays as languid and tight all at once as shots go from one to the next, sometimes lingering when necessary, and a day is gone before we realize it. For a film that seemed to be received as nothing more than an ego trip or vanity project there’s truth in its pain, even if it’s a glamorous pain ready to drift off in an alcoholic haze of the afternoon sun that doesn’t make the hurt go away.
On one level BY THE SEA might be a goof, a kick, nothing more than a dream of being in the world of L’AVVENTURA or CONTEMPT seen through scope imagery thanks to cinematographer Christian Berger who revels in the lusciousness of this tiny bay hidden away from the world. Along with the celluloid ennui to make us think of Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton in their late 60s yachting-around-the-world prime (embarrassing admission: I’ve never actually seen BOOM! but have somehow made it all the way to the end of THE VIPs) there’s also, somewhat surprisingly, a certain amount of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? in its portrayal of games between two married couples and of the specific secrets that get revealed. It’s almost a version of VIRGINIA WOOLF not written by Edward Albee or set in academia but somewhere off in the Mediterranean in that late 60s Liz & Dick world although in this case we’re the only ones who find out the secret that the two leads already know. The other couple is much more incidental in this film because these secrets are just for Roland and Vanessa, the sort of things you only find out about somebody past midnight and it sets them apart from the rest of the world. There’s some of Woody Allen’s ANOTHER WOMAN in the basic plot as well (the Blu-ray special features include a visit to Gena Rowlands by the lead couple to receive her blessing, no doubt because of the Cassavetes connection but her lead role in that film certainly comes to mind) and even a slight Hitchcock vibe, not just in the peering next door reminiscent of PSYCHO but in the always careful placing of point of view, particularly through that peephole or even how Jolie Pitt places the hotel and cafe always in relation to each other in the frame, continually keeping the two leads together when all they want to do is stay apart.
But while it luxuriates in those similarities it never forgets that the film is not about simple homage but the escalating tensions that Vanessa is instigating and Roland is trying to avoid. The film manages the tightrope of being that goof and also acknowledging the pain, aware of the loss that has happened, the reaching for some form of happiness that may never come. As CONTEMPT turned into a commentary on Bardot’s beauty, this film gets closer to the female lead in a way that one couldn’t since, after all, Godard wasn’t Bardot and it’s as if Jolie is laying bare the mechanics of her beauty in each close-up. She watches these two normal people (I don’t know how ‘normal’ Mélanie Laurent is, but I guess in this context…) next door without stopping, maybe with fascination, maybe with terror, maybe with hatred, as if they’re a strange lifeforce she’s never encountered. The obsessiveness in her unblinking expression while watching them also brings a surprising wit to it at times—more than expected, it’s a genuinely funny film in a deadpan way, even down to very slight gestures by characters and bits such as the dryness in Roland and Vanessa’s “I’m blowing you a kiss” patter. Plus the bolt of energy the film receives as we see the two of them primp to get ready for their dinner with the other couple, waiting to ply them with liquor, finally a reason for Vanessa to make herself look as good as she can look. Out of nowhere, they’re coming to life as much as the film does, for once they have a reason to become the couple we’ve been waiting to see.
Roland calls Vanessa his inspiration, of course he does, adjusting her glasses that she’s carelessly tossed down as if trying to fix some small part of her. He seems to say it half-jokingly but finally realizes that’s what she really is, while being glamorous and miserable, beautiful and despondent, the past always flashing through her head. “You resist happiness, you’re a good woman,” he tells her and, of course, all of this is the last thing she wants to hear. They shut out everything around them, they’re not even certain of the date of their anniversary, speaking of a past that has been forgotten, finally finding commonality in their tiny power over the purely innocent, uncomplicated happiness of the couple next door who they can spy on and mess with. They’re not turned on so much by watching the other couple make love but how it’s finally something they can share. For once, they don’t have to be alone. It brings them closer together but only so much and eventually they have to really face each other, face her sorrow, face why he can’t confront it. What gets revealed to us near the end is maybe too easy of a revelation in the sense that if you’re trying to guess what the horrible secret is you might be right but on the other hand it doesn’t have to be more than that since what finally gets spoken out loud is simply what it is, devastating to the two of them who know the truth. The film doesn’t hold back the emotion when it counts, in small and large moments, and is never embarrassed to go to those places. Life goes on. Things hurt. Some people always have someone next to them. Some don’t. Some people can move on from pain. Some get destroyed. It’s hard to look at the very last image of BY THE SEA and not think that maybe Angelina Jolie Pitt is saying something about her own marriage but in the context of just the film it’s a reminder of how much it can mean to have someone reaching out to you with a small piece of understanding even as they know you through all your pain and cruelty as they try to help you back to shore, no one else in the world mattering. And that counts for something.
The chemistry between the two leads is natural and unforced, no real surprise—there’s an uncluttered feel to most of their scenes together, even if there are times when it’s a little like Pitt is doing this to do the film with his wife more than anything else, not that there’s anything wrong with that. His pain is felt and vulnerability comes through more than almost ever before but it’s at a slight remove as if he knows that he’s doing Michel Piccoli in CONTEMPT doing Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING. As an actor Pitt seems instinctive, here playing someone trying to stay in control while Jolie as actress keeps in control while playing someone totally instinctive. She’s the one who really inhabits her role, shutting out the world from the vulnerability she wants to keep hidden at all costs while at times scoping out the other person as if contemplating draining them of their blood like she’s Delphine Seyrig in DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS. She’s aware of how she looks and how much of that is a construct as she puts herself together. Just as Clint Eastwood has always known how to frame himself in the most iconic way possible she does the same when the focus is on her (maybe something she learned when Eastwood directed her in CHANGELING), even tweaking her screen presence at times away from that movie star-ness in a way similar to how he’s done it over the years. It makes her more interesting as an actress here than she’s been allowed to be in most of her films from the past decade which is maybe why some of them have been so boring—it turns out the best director for Angelina Jolie is Angelina Jolie. Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud come off just as callow as they should be, playing the younger pair living in their own private well-off bubble, not yet aware of all the pain that’s out there in the world. As the café owner who has to deal with the hard-drinking writer who keeps coming by, Niels Arestrup gives the film its kindly soul and conscience, staring at the photo he keeps of his late wife and calmly waiting things out in this gentle oasis until he can finally join her.
We don’t get what we want. Things are kept quiet. Things explode. Entire worlds end and no one else in the room knows it. Maybe I need a vacation, but I’m here. Just here. Dreaming of being somewhere else, maybe off in Europe, maybe a little day drinking, sitting by the water while trying to write and trying to avoid writing about certain people. I feel like I’m stuck between not wanting to live in the past and being haunted by it. The thing about BY THE SEA is part of it is how much I want to live vicariously through it for my own reasons and part of it is being faced with that view out the window, facing that depression, that feeling when there’s nothing else. We have bad people in our lives sometimes. But we love them anyway. Sometimes we wake up and realize that we’re one of those people. And then we have to press on, even if we’re never really sure how to do that.


l. said...

This is stunning, all of what you wrote. And so much of your personal inclusions, and reactions, and musings on life and people and looking back (as well as wanting a vacation, day drinking, the sea) I relate to, quite a lot.

I've been curious about this film for awhile, and now I definitely want to see it.

"the sort of things you only find out about somebody past midnight"

Yes. That.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thank you very much for those kind words. Nice to know someone out there feels the same way. Hope you like the film when you see it and these thoughts come to mind.


john said...

Thank you so much for this wonderfully written,intelligent and incredibly perceptive review of this most remarkable film.It is one of the best pieces I have read about the film,a film that is my favourite of the past 5 or 10 years.Thank you once again!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Your comment was buried in a spam folder and I just found it, my apologies. Your kind words mean a great deal, thank you so much for that!