Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2015: #5


Roland (Brad Pitt) is an author as yet unable to replicate the success of his first novel. He and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) travel to a remote French seaside resort where, in a suite atop the promontory, he can write in peace, she can heal from an obliquely referenced trauma in the recent past, and they can heal their bitter marriage. At least that's the plan in "By the Sea," Jolie's third and best feature as a director.

The most salient aspect of "By the Sea" is its visual splendor. Filmed on a vast set constructed on the rocky coast of Gozo, an island off Malta, this is one of the most ravishingly beautiful films ever made. Virtually every shot could serve as a full-page magazine advert. Pitt is no longer the baby-faced, sex-on-a-stick petty thief from "Thelma & Louise" but a grown man shaped and scarred by experience (who still fills out a pair of designer slacks like nobody's business). The sight of Jolie sporting oversized glasses, her head cocked to the side, gazing out a window and puffing on a long, narrow cigarette may be just what the tobacco industry needs to bring smoking back. (She'll also do wonders for hat sales.) The cove itself is so comically crystalline that the fisherman who rows out to sea each morning and back in each night looks painted-on.

Most days, Roland descends the escarpment steps to a café whose owner (played by the always imposing Niels Arestrup) has left the tiny town only once, for his daughter's wedding in Chicago and back by weekend's end. There, Roland orders pastis with lunch - later, for lunch; later, for breakfast - and writes far too little. Vanessa mostly stays in bed or putters aimlessly around the room. When he comes back, they exchange veiled or not-so-veiled insults, or give each other the silent treatment. Each day plays out much like the one before. This has led to a facile critical consensus that "By the Sea" is slow, uneventful, redundant - as if Jolie had simply forgotten to cut scenes out.

This is a film of languor - lassitude, even. But duplicative scenes ought not to be confused with longueurs. We have here a couple intentionally submitting themselves to a season of isolation and inactivity - of healing. As a film audience, we too must from time to time experience the absence of the peaks and valleys of mainstream entertainments. If "By the Sea" is too tough, I've got news; wide swaths of the cinematic canon will remain wholly off-limits to you. I've seen countless films that make "By the Sea" look like an extended car chase.

For one willing to engage with its characters, it offers pleasures aplenty. Not only the rare glamour of its setting and its stars, but a witty and cheeky comment on celebrity and voyeurism. Vanessa discovers a small hole near the bottom of the wall between their suite and that of a newlywed couple, Lea (Mélanie Laurent of "Beginners") and François (Melvil Poupaud), where she watches him shave and her shower and the two of them make love. After demurring, Roland joins her by the peephole, and there's a very funny scene of Pitt and Jolie, on the floor, eating berries and taking turns spying on their neighbors. "We understand your compulsion to watch," they seem to be saying, though Jolie does not shy away from its destructive force.

The scene in which the source of Vanessa's pain is finally spoken - and the way it is spoken, and by whom - is a potent and memorable one. Some of the same critics who have called the movie boring also suggest the revelation comes as a surprise. They missed several clues. Another scene, in which Vanessa threatens to cuckold Roland with François, brings out an animal possessiveness in Pitt: "No," he says, grabbing her and shaking her. "You love ME."

Along the way, there are also many moments of humor in which Jolie plays on her iconography. After François effuses about the joy he has found in marriage, Vanessa half-smiles and responds only, "Mm…" When the mood strikes for a shopping spree in town, she tells Roland she's taking Lea with her: "It's my good deed for the month." Such a line can only really work when delivered without malice. As with any great character (say, Rue McClanahan's Blanche Devereaux on "The Golden Girls"), it must flow organically from her perception of herself in relation to others.

If you have the attention span of a functional human adult, you may find the same smile on your face throughout "By the Sea" as did I.

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