Film Reviews


By • Jan 11th, 2016 •

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A stunning, mature accomplishment by Jolie-Pitt.

They are the Liz & Dick of our time. With children and charities instead of drinking binges and public brawling, we have an insatiable hunger to know everything about them. How do they talk to each other? Who is stronger? Who loves who more?

As director, writer and star, Angelina Jolie-Pitt knows this and more. She knows we are wondering if she still alluring after her double mastectomy. Will director Jolie-Pitt acknowledge Brad Pitt’s career as a sex symbol? Will Brad’s Roland make love to Angelina’s Vanessa the way his Achilles made love to Briseis in TROY? With BY THE SEA, Jolie-Pitt has given us her version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

And Jolie-Pitt’s Vanessa is a bitch with a mean streak.

It is a small, intimate film made not for American audiences but modelled after the great character studies of the French New Wave. It is a stunning accomplishment. For Jolie-Pitt it is an opportunity to showcase her skill at directing a character piece. Jolie-Pitt gives us everything we want.

As an actress, Angelina Jolie-Pitt has positioned herself as a regal presence, clearly limiting the roles she will play. Can you see her as a housewife creating a mop?

BY THE SEA is set in a fantastically beautiful French village. It is the 1970s and Roland (Brad Pitt) is a successful novelist struggling through writer’s block to come up with an idea for a book. Alcohol is his new muse. His wife, Vanessa (Angelina Jolie-Pitt), has retired from a notable career as a dancer. She may be – at the moment – miserable, but there was a time when she shopped. Vanessa is draped in exquisite, sweeping lingerie by night and a thoroughly unattractive, shockingly ugly wardrobe by day.

We would not want to see Mr. and Mrs. Pitt playing a couple vacationing in a budget suite in Miami trying to fix their marriage. This is where we want to see them, driving a very fast sports car and speaking French without an accent.

Something really bad happened between Roland and Vanessa. Whatever it is, it’s made Vanessa very angry with Roland. He goes into town every day to pick up inspiration. He is trying to find a story. Vanessa lounges in full makeup and custom-made matronly clothes, drinking wine and smoking. She is a catatonic ice queen. Sufficiently drunk by the time Roland comes back to their suite, Vanessa has a stash of sleeping pills to knock herself out.

With her brave and stark first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Jolie-Pitt brilliantly showed her skill at staging the bedroom as the relationship battlefield where one’s true self sheds its public façade. Roland may have hoped that an idyllic and charming setting would be good for them, but Vanessa brought along her bitterness. She did not come to France to make peace or have sex.

Vanessa has the distracted habit of tossing her expensive, big bug sunglasses wherever it suits her. Roland, attentive to Vanessa’s disregard for the value of things, always places them upright so the lens is not damaged. With this small detail, an insight into their marriage is wordlessly presented.

If insight into the Pitt marriage is required, Brad must be the responsible one making sure there are no crayon marks on the multiple Banksys.

Whatever happened, the fault must be Roland’s; he is solicitous with Vanessa and patient. She is moody, high-strung and unrelenting. She is the dominant one in the relationship.

Roland spends every day talking to Michel (Niels Ares Trup), who is the proprietor of the village cafe. No one notices the very handsome man.

Trying to figure out what happened to them, I am sure Roland either had an affair with Vanessa’s best friend or, a far worse scenario worthy of her pain – had she been pregnant and a drunken Roland accidentally shoved her causing her to lose the baby?

There had to be death someplace.

A newlywed couple arrives and are given the suite next to Roland and Vanessa. Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Milvil Poupaul) are young, beautiful and honeymooning. Lea is hopelessly in love and barely notices Roland’s attractiveness. Francois is sensuously French and does notice Vanessa’s beauty. Vanessa starts sunbathing on the terrace ditching the awful clothes when Francois is around. Francois is sexy and can be seduced – he’s young and he has a young man’s sex drive.

One evening Vanessa notices that a hole in the wall is perfectly aligned to watch the couple in the next suite making love. She becomes sexually awakened and soon Roland is watching the couple with her.

Without any provocation, Vanessa accuses Roland of wanting to have sex with Lea. Roland says he only wants his wife. Vanessa becomes jealous of the happy couple. She needs to destroy their happiness.

There are levels of complexity in the story of Roland and Vanessa. Jolie-Pitt knows that sometimes the need to cause pain in a relationship is healing and can set things on the right course again. Risky, but it can resurrect the love between people.

Jolie-Pitt honors her character by not giving Vanessa a “come to Jesus” scene. Vanessa does not change. And, while both stars are “highly desired sex symbols”, it is Vanessa who is presented in BY THE SEA as the more desirable of the two.

Perhaps another sly look into the Pitt marriage?

Women who have a double mastectomy (and in Jolie-Pitt’s case, additional surgery removing her fallopian tubes and ovaries and starting menopause) often do not feel they are sexually attractive anymore. With Jolie-Pitt, filming herself nude is defiant and an admirable feat. Women who have reconstructive surgery (granted, Jolie-Pitt’s surgeon is an artist) should see Jolie-Pitt as someone to emulate. She still sees herself and represents herself as a sexually beautiful woman. And Brad Pitt? There is not one shot of him that showcases his undeniable sex appeal. And this says a lot about their marriage – he’s fine with it.

With the exception of one directorial misstep – a sloppy fight scene that abruptly ends silly – BY THE SEA is an exceptional work of art and certainly not a “favor” movie that a studio gives to a movie star to keep them happy.

Member of Las Vegas Film Critics

Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at