29 Aug 2016

Review: By the Sea

From Widescreen, 8:55 am on 29 August 2016

Angelina Jolie’s third directorial outing was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences. Dan Slevin offers some reasons why you might want to seek it out on home video.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie-Pitt are unhappy Americans abroad in Jolie-Pitt’s By the Sea

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie-Pitt are unhappy Americans abroad in Jolie-Pitt’s By the Sea Photo: Universal/Sony Home Entertainment

By all accounts Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea was a commercial and artistic disaster. Ignored by audiences and scorned by critics, it risked being categorised with other Hollywood follies like Ishtar or Madonna’s Swept Away. My task here, then, is to persuade you that it is not a complete failure. It may never reach the heights of the films and performances that inspired it but, as Oscar Wilde put it, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

Jolie (or Jolie-Pitt as she is credited here) has shown in three films now that she is a serious and redoubtable filmmaker. Her first feature, In the Land of Blood and Honey, was a heavyweight drama about the Bosnian war and won some awards and nominations despite not making it to cinemas here. Next she took on the World War II prisoner-of-war crowd-pleaser Unbroken and stumbled only in the final act.

For a couple who have been tabloid-fodder for so long, their dedication to their art form is pretty respectable. Added to Jolie’s directing projects Pitt’s company – and his clout – have given us 12 Years a Slave, Selma, The Tree of Life and the under-rated Killing Them Softly. By the Sea is the most personal – according to Jolie in the DVD extras it’s a script she has been carrying for over ten years.

An American couple (the Jolie-Pitts) arrive in a remote French resort (in a spectacularly beautiful convertible Citroën). He is a writer. She was a dancer. He stares at a blank piece of paper for a while and then starts drinking. She rarely leaves the hotel room – the hotel is a spectacular bucket list cliff-top location, by the way – except to make friends with the newlywed couple next door (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). The discovery of a peep-hole between the two rooms temporarily brings our discontented Americans together before we finally get to discover what has been making them behave so badly towards each other.

A rare tender moment between the Jolie-Pitt’s in By the Sea

A rare tender moment between the Jolie-Pitt’s in By the Sea Photo: Universal/Sony Home Entertainment

By the Sea is an awkward mélange of influences: the emotional nakedness of Cassevetes and Rowlands; the intellectual architecture of 60s Godard (the location and framing could be right out of Contempt or Pierrot le Fou) and the Americans-abroad mysteries of Patricia Highsmith.

On top of that, they bravely cast two French cinema legends in supporting roles – Richard Bohringer and Niels Arestrup – who then act the lead pair off the screen at every opportunity. Pitt looks every bit his 52 years and Jolie-Pitt goes deep to support a script that obviously means a great deal to her. Malta plays 1960s France superbly.

Not all of it works but you can see what Jolie-Pitt is aiming for, and with influences and ambition like that, she has plenty of better films in front of her. After all, she’s only 41 years old. Godard is still shooting at 85.

By the Sea cover

By the Sea is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and iTunes and Google Play. We have a handful of DVDs of the film to give away, courtesy of Universal/Sony Home Entertainment. Email widescreen@radionz.co.nz or tweet us at @WidescreenRNZ.

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