By the Sea
By putting sexual disharmony at the forefront of her film By the Sea, writer/director Angelina Jolie (Pitt) creates a disquieting intimacy with the silence of failed sex set in France during the height of the sexual revolution of the early 1970s.
If nothing else, By the Sea is an illusion to stimulate conscious voyeurism, both in its characters and viewing audience.
Our interests are split between two couples: one a passive-aggressive, terminally revolving fourteen-year-old marriage with a troubled past, while the second couple are newlyweds on their honeymoon, with but a hole in the wall between them.
Often, directors pull from their personal life experiences, as do novelists and painters. Director David Cronenberg’s father was dying from a debilitating skin disease while Cronenberg was filming The Fly, and he admits to introducing that fact into the visual transformation of his lead character. Sofia Coppola has stated that her film Marie Antoinette is littered with a contemporary soundtrack because, though set in the 18th century, the movie reflects her journey through the collapse of her father’s Zoetrope empire.
In light of Jolie’s healthcare concerns, By the Sea mirrors the fading summer of her own sex symbol status into a post-mastectomy matriarchal position. (Gee, I can’t believe I actually said that!)
With its sexually charged Serge Gainsbourg background sound, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie) drive their convertible along the French coast seeking out inspiration for their existence. He’s a frustrated writer from Chicago who spends his days on a barstool chatting with locals across an opened journal of blank pages that echo remnants of Hemingway and to a degree Bukowski as they reflect the brutal ruin of isolation. She’s a self-pitying cynic consumed by a deep-seated resentment toward anyone who shows a hint of being alive.
Both of them watch the lives around them for the glimmer of a rescue ship on the horizon. Out of nowhere, their colorless existence is upended once a younger couple on their honeymoon rents the chateau next door, providing a beacon of playful opportunities for the drowning marriage.
Similar to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, with its haunting, almost ghostly cinematography by Christian Berger (who also shot The White Ribbon), it compliments the wordless communication as Pitt slowly unfurls as a lost soul who must’ve studied Harry Dean Stanton for months in Paris, Texas! Jolie despondently spins through her character’s revolving door of moods as the ex-dancer she’s playing.
And that Vanessa is a once famous dancer hearkens back to the fact that dancers from the age of vaudeville and the Busby Berkeley musicals of the ‘30s up until the Carol Doda go-go era were considered to be of a sexual nature. All the burlesque performers and early strippers, women like Tempest Storm and Candy Barr were the precursors of porn, which came of age corresponding to the time this movie is set, in the early ‘70s.
Vanessa is a throwback to the gothic era, as a tragic figure dressed to the nines, perched above the crashing waves below.
While in comparison, the newlyweds, Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francoise (Melvil Poupaud), come across as inertly ignorant of anything other than their own lust, graciously exuberant like a couple from one of Godard’s classics, too alive to care.
It might be something psychological, it’s surely something mostly physical that separates the two couples. Age plays its part in keeping them at arm’s length. There’s nothing in particular worthy of emulation in either couple. It’s simply the stimulant a ruined existence finds from a vibrant, experimental, lusty one.
There are no bad guys here, but one couple is guilty of displaying too much passion for the other couple which has lost all passion.
Godard once commented that his film Masculine Feminine reflected “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.”
By the Sea is the aggravated answer to the sexual hostility of Deep Throat, and the spiritual emptiness found in The People’s Temple, and Jolie has found a remarkable way to point it out!