A lot of the commentary I’ve seen about Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea has been that it is a self-indulgent vanity project. I have some different feelings about all of that, and also have a suspicion that “self-indulgent” means different things to different people, as does the word “vanity” as does the word “project.” You got the picture? Of course it’s okay not to like the damn thing. It’s not all that easy to like, to be honest, although I loved it. But the movie is strange enough that it deserves to be considered on its own terms, and not dismissed out of hand. Plus, pulling out the words “self-indulgent” and “vanity project”: Paucity of words = potential paucity of ideas/thought. Thank you, George Orwell.
Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review, though, is excellent, very thought-provoking. The review is not a rave, but Dargis actually grapples with what Angelina Jolie is trying to DO with the film, not just with the film, but with herself and her persona onscreen.
If you read me with any regularity, you know my fascination/love for Strong Personae. The great actors of the old studio system, the ones who basically helped invent screen acting, operated from carefully-constructed and yet totally-natural-to-them Persona. This type of acting is out of style now. We value transformation (weight loss, different accents, how much an actor can “disappear” into a role). But this is not the only way to measure Good Acting (although you’d never know it from some of the commentary. The stupid “He/she just plays themselves” commentary. My thoughts on that for all time here.) But there are still actors who work in that Strong Persona mode and (not surprisingly – to me, anyway) they are some of our biggest box office stars. Leonardo DiCaprio. Julia Roberts. Brad Pitt. Angelina Jolie. George Clooney. Now WITHIN their personae there is a hell of a lot of variety, as we can see in the careers of the old-school Persona Actors, like John Wayne. It is a mistake to say these people “just play themselves.” They play to their strengths (a smart move, not a limited move. In my opinion, a lot of the actors playing at transforming themselves now do not have the skill to pull it off successfully. They look like they are working. They want points for how hard they are working.) There were great stars in the studio system who were masters of transformation on the more modern model (Bette Davis is maybe the best example). And some of the greatest “transformers” are the stealth-bombers who come in from the side, the ones who are not starlets trying to show how serious they are by “uglying” up, or bald-faced grabbing for an Oscar nom. (Kristen Wiig, in my opinion, is the greatest transformational actress working at present.)
So let’s bring this back to By the Sea. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie, and starring Jolie and her husband, Brad Pitt, Jolie both carefully and carelessly (it’s an interesting mix) presents a story that is more a mood-poem or an “impression” than an actual traditional story. Jolie is interested in something else. She doesn’t seem to care about conventional things like “keeping the thing moving,” “mix it up,” “create interest” … and in her hands, what happens in the ABSENCE of all of those conventional storytelling tropes is fascinating. Because there is a plot. The thing does move. The thing is interesting. But it’s placed within this moody dreamy atmosphere, an ocean of unexpressed emotions, mysterious motivations, and eloquent “poses” – self-conscious, “arty,” callbacks to other films featuring malaise and beautiful settings and mystery – Godard, Antonioni, Bergman, some of Woody Allen’s non-comedies – and yet these poses are not self-indulgent. Or, to put it another way, because there are deeper issues here: They ARE self-indulgent, and that is not a bad thing when you are talking about actors with gigantic reach and star power and charisma and face-recognition around the world.
Angelina Jolie knows she and her husband are the most talked-about couple in the world. I won’t go into how they manage their press (except to say that I think they are brilliant at it), but I will say that By the Sea has a self-awareness about the fascination this couple holds for the world. (I know there are some who will say, “I don’t care about these people. I care far more about the starving children in The Sudan.” I get it, you’re deep, but most of us are able to care about more than one thing at a time. One thing does not necessarily cancel out the other.) So what does Angelina Jolie do with that knowledge that she and her husband are gossiped about 24/7? A couple different things. She places the two characters in a beautiful Mediterranean setting. They are rich, so their clothes are exquisite. There are really only three other people who appear in the movie with any regularity. The whole thing is the Angie-Brad show. A little of this goes a long way, and in By the Sea, Jolie pushes it to its limits. Shots repeat, endlessly: Jolie lying on the balcony in the sunshine, collapsed in beautiful misery. Pitt sitting at a bar, smoking, crinkling with humor, looking around and listening. Back to Jolie, lying in bed in a silk negligee, tears streaking mascara down her face. Back to Pitt, in the bar, seated in a corner, squinting his eyes around at the rest of the customers. Back to Jolie, leaning over her balcony in a gigantic sun hat, kicking her beautiful feet up behind her, but otherwise not moving. And on. And on. And on. And on.
As with any film, your mileage may vary in terms of responding to this, but for me: within all of this repetition a bunch of different things start to emerge, or present themselves. Many of these things may not make literal sense, in terms of Story, but they do have something to do with other things that Art can address or portray, like Beauty. Beauty separated from any need other than having to express itself, show itself, reveal itself. In other words, and I hope you’re still with me, you are given TIME to revel in Beauty. Nothing is rushed. You are given TIME to stare at two of the biggest stars in the world being miserable, angst-ridden, and gorgeous. There isn’t even a busy plot that would take up the characters’ consciousness and energy. There isn’t a huge ensemble. All we get is the two of them, sitting in the middle of a shattered marriage, unable to even speak to one another anymore, about what has happened, what is wrong. The “meta” element of this is huge, because they are a couple in real life, because (at least in their outward appearance and press coverage) they have a good relationship … it’s somewhat fascinating and queasy to see these two well-known famous figures “play” at an unhappy marriage filled with rage and loss. I don’t find it self-indulgent at all. Or maybe, like I said, that word has different meanings to different people. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, a real-life couple, swam around in the audience’s knowledge of that fact, and “played out” their relationship in multiple movies. This type of pairing counts on the audience feeling “in” on it.
That’s part of the pleasure, added to the perhaps “common” pleasure of seeing gorgeous people in gorgeous settings being fabulous. (I have no shame about loving those things. Because I am fascinated watching actors who are famous for being famous, or famous because their Personae is so strong and indelible – unique – and I love watching these people work with these things. Even in not-very-good movies it’s always interesting.) Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made a bunch of movies together when they were the most famous couple in the world – and it is those movies – like V.I.P.s, Boom!, The Sandpiper – which By the Sea most resembles. They are movies of a different era. You must factor that in when you watch them. They are “vehicles,” and there’s a real show-biz savvy “Give the public what they want and give them MORE of what they want” feel to some of those movies (which are, granted, very weird. But By the Sea is weird too.) Burton and Taylor also did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a brilliant film with superb performances from all involved, and there Burton and Taylor were willing to take the lid off, show their ugliness (the characters’ I mean, the picture was not “biography”), be unsympathetic, be willing to live the lives of stuffy academics as opposed to jet-setting glamour-pusses.
Going to watch Burton and Taylor again and again in these movies (good or bad) hits some primal pleasure-points that academic types find baffling, or disapprove of, but it’s a losing battle. People want what they want. And different movies provide different things. Being socially-relevant, politically-explosive, subtle/nuanced is not the ONLY measure of good art or a good movie. It’s ONE measure, but not every movie has the same goals.
Magic Mike XXL, just this year, really had no story. The only story it had (“one last ride!”) was so cliched that it was practically cringe-worthy. But the film was interested in something other than story, plot, or even character. It was interested in Beauty (Jada Pinkett Smith even says that outright in the script). What is Beauty? How do we respond to it? What does it provide us? What happens when it is offered freely? When someone presents themselves to you as an Object – and does so in a spirit of generosity? Wanting only to “make your day”? These are deeply emotional and philosophical concepts, and Magic Mike XXL addressed ALL of them, all while remaining light, breezy, fun, silly. Because taking Beauty too seriously, or getting bogged down in issues of “gaze”, or “objectification” … that’s fine for your dissertation. And there are real issues about gaze (something that Jolie addresses in By the Sea, by her mere presence behind the camera. This movie is HERS.) But taken outside of academic concerns, people need Beauty. They run towards it. It’s no surprise that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were two of the biggest stars during the 20th century’s grimmest decade. They provided pleasure, beauty, glamour, escape. Powerful primal stuff. What you find beautiful may be different from what I find beautiful. Beauty can comfort, narcotize, enliven … it makes OTHER things seem possible. (“Beauty is Truth,” etc.) Magic Mike XXL is RADICAL in the way it presented all of these aspects in a carefree and yet totally pointed way so that the message could not fail to land. There was no love story. No villain. No fight scenes. Seriously: NO PLOT. There was nothing to distract. There was just a merry band of strippers on a crazy road trip, taking pit-stops here, sleep-overs there, spreading joy and sparkly sunshine to everyone they meet along the way.
For real? In this day and age? Well, YES. The world needs THAT just as much as it needs in-depth gravitas. Fun and Beauty can be JUST as radical.
In By the Sea, we first see the couple whipping through the French coast in a zippy silver convertible. She wears a gigantic sun-hat, even larger sunglasses, and her expression is totally flat. A mask of intimidating beauty. He is a bit more lively, glancing at her, leaving one hand on the wheel. Cigarettes nearby at all times. Settling into their Mediterranean hotel, isolated and fabulous, you learn in about two exchanges that he is a writer working on his next book (because of course he is), and she? She does nothing but stand against walls in white dresses, or black nightgowns, looking miserable and heart-achingly beautiful. Like, she doesn’t even seem real. Their dynamic is not just cold, but icy. And yet at the same time, in the first scene when they enter their room, they immediately start to move furniture around in a pantomime suggesting that this is “what they do,” they travel a lot, they know the way they like their rooms, the desk needs to be near the window. This is all done without a word spoken. But it says everything. Or, not everything, but it adds a counterpoint to the nearly-wordless static state of the marriage, where she is miserable, popping pills, unable to leave the room, and he is clearly a high-functioning alcoholic who can’t wait to get to the bar everyday to “write” (but really drink). You still remember, through all of that, the pantomime of these two gorgeous creatures setting up their room the way they liked it.
A honeymooning couple (wonderful French actress and director Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) move into the room next door. They have sex all day and all night. They try to make conversation with Vanessa from the next balcony, and Vanessa is so weird she can barely say “Hello.” But then Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall through which she can peer through into the next room. Vanessa’s husband goes off to write, and Vanessa finds herself drawn to that hole in the wall, she can’t help herself, she crouches on the floor staring through at all the sex, and nakedness, and laughing, and post-coital sleeping. It is Vanessa’s secret. Her husband comes home and wonders what she did all day. She drones at him that she took a walk. But she’s still coming out of the fugue state from staring through the hole in the wall.
Finally, one day, as we knew he would, he discovers the hole in the wall too.
And when he discovers it, everything shifts. Things start to speed up, change, intensify. It gets even stranger. The couple, who has been lost, unable to reach one another at all, suddenly start to come together, seemingly. The hole in the wall is their only distraction. The respite doesn’t last long, though, because that hole in the wall is pitiless. It strips them raw of defenses.
The “hole in the wall” reminds me of the “grate” in Woody Allen’s Another Woman. Gena Rowlands, a writer working on a new book, has rented an apartment to be able to work in peace and quiet. On her first day there, she hears a voice coming through the grate, as clear as if the person were in the room with her. The voice is sobbing in a heart-rending way about her life and her husband to a man who is clearly a psychiatrist. Rowlands’ character is very disturbed by this, and needs to get work done, so she places pillows over the grate. Problem solved. Until a couple of days later … she needs to know what is happening over there with that sobbing woman … and she removes the pillows. Moving into a similar dream-fugue state, Gena Rowlands’ character is now seen crouching by the grate, listening, as opposed to sitting at her desk working. What are her thoughts about this? What is she getting from this? What is she running from? What is being stirred up?
Angelina Jolie knows her Another Woman, I’m thinking.
The plot is not “the thing” here. What is “the thing” is Jolie creating a pretty wide space (not too many distractions or requirements built into the script) so that she and her husband can behave and listen and talk, all within the confines of these two particular characters. Some of it feels like an abstract surrealist play. Or something written by Harold Pinter, who was also able to suggest malaise and dread through pauses and short oblique sentences. There’s not an “A-Ha” moment about what is wrong. I guessed about 20 minutes in, as did my friend. It’s not a thriller, building up to an exposition-monologue of “HERE is the HORRIBLE THING in my past.” By the Sea is not manipulative that way. It’s manipulative in other ways, but the kind of manipulation I find pleasing. The “primal” level of “pleasing” that I talked about earlier.
Like watching Joan Crawford step into her meticulously set-up key light, eyes gleaming. Like watching John Wayne walk into a room or walk out of a room. Or, hell, just STAND there.
These are artists who understand who they are (to themselves, AND to the public), who know how to “set themselves up” so that stories can be told, and who USE themselves (literally) as part of a larger narrative … as a sculptor uses clay, stone, etc. That kind of self-awareness is sometimes referred to as “self-indulgent” or “vain” (more so now than it was back in the day). Granted: This kind of self-consciousness in acting can also be extremely arch and annoying and worthless, yes. You have to be a real pro to pull it off. Your Persona must be Mount-Rushmore-strong. And let’s not forget the double-standard in material like this. Kevin Costner often let the camera dwell lovingly upon his own ass in Dances with Wolves and nobody called him out on it. Nobody even noticed it. Barbra Streisand did the same thing in Prince of Tides and she was excoriated for it. “She’s so VAIN. Does she honestly think she’s beautiful? Who the hell does this broad think she is??” Jolie is FULLY aware of this double standard, and instead of avoiding it (by, say, not filming herself in an objectifying way), she dives right on in. The camera moves up her body. The camera is carefully placed so her stunning profile takes up half the foreground. She is seen putting makeup on in the dressing-room mirror, cigarette clenched between her teeth, and she is as breathtaking as Bardot, Anouk Aimee, any screen goddess you want to mention. Jolie is playing with all of those criticisms, acknowledging them, up-ending them. She is a woman. It is interesting to see how she DEALS with all of that, not just in filming herself, but in filming the newlyweds next door (gorgeous and golden and laughing and free), the old guy in the bar, even all the extras who populate the area. Jolie’s eye is keen for this kind of detail, but it is when she turns the camera on herself that the film tips over into … iconography? Myth? It’s both dream and nightmare. None of it is realistic because this kind of Beauty doesn’t REALLY exist, except in our own minds and hearts and pleasure-spots.
All of this being said, I found By the Sea a total hoot, actually. There’s a lot of humor in it. Not slapstick or obvious, but from absurdity and inexplicable behavior. But the real “hoot” comes because the film hits all of those sweet spots I’ve been going on about. It has the confidence to resist conventional pacing, to let silence dominate. It lets people be weird and incomprehensible, unsympathetic and yet tragic. It lets images be mysterious and unexplained. Pitt is wonderful as a trapped man, whose original talent is now drowning in alcohol, a guy known only for his first book, when it all came easy. Once things started getting hard for him, he was at a loss how to recover that ease. And he can’t reach his wife. He takes a condescending tone with her, almost scolding her in a parental way for her attitude. She doesn’t fight back because she knows he’s right. Besides, Jolie’s character is constantly narcotized, an opiate addict of some kind. Her responses are not just subdued, but total apathetic flat-affect. Interspersed with frightening crying jags. When he tries to touch her, she cringes, her eyes flitting about like a wild animal in a trap.
Can this marriage be saved??
Honestly, neither one of these characters seems like a prize. The film isn’t about us “investing” in their relationships because how can you really invest in a couple so fabulously wealthy and devastatingly sad? Jolie wanted to create an art film. She has said the film came out of the grief following her mother’s death, as well as some of the issues/losses/feelings she experienced with her recent decisions to get a double mastectomy/hysterectomy. The film is truly strange, but it also feels deeply personal. Posing, self-indulgence, vanity … none of that matters or grates if it’s a Strong Persona doing it, because what Strong Personae can do is bring themselves to every moment. Nothing is forced. The camera light goes on and Strong Personae people open themselves up, gently, automatically. They are more intimate with the camera than they are with other human beings. The camera goes deeper, cuts to the essence of things.
Jolie, a private person (as well as very public when she wants to be), understands ALL of this. But what is really fascinating about By the Sea is what Dargis mentioned in her review: Crucially, Vanessa’s focus moves next door to the honeymooning neighbors. It’s when the movie really starts. Jolie sets herself up as the center of the film, her character lying in bed, out on the balcony, wearing amazing clothes, smoking, popping pills, crying gorgeously. But she can’t help but crouch on that floor, peeking through that hole in the wall, at a world other than her own, at a world in which she plays ZERO part. That world/life over there is appealing, it’s destabilizing. The hole in the wall is a great device and Jolie has a lot of fun exploring it. The device takes the characters to really unexpected places of intimacy, treachery, openness, loss.
By the Sea doesn’t feel like a story in the way we usually understand stories. By the Sea feels like Jolie has created an opportunity where she and her famous husband – who go to Target with their brood of children followed by an army of photographers – can PLAY with all of these ideas, fight, cry, smolder, talk, BE, with the least amount of distraction.
Even better, even more powerfully, the film allows them to put themselves on display for us. Yes, within the structure of the film, the characters behave, listen, talk, react. Both Jolie and Pitt do wonderful work. But on another level, that meta-level, the level of Beauty, the Magic Mike XXL level, By the Sea lets us LOOK at them. Gives us time to just LOOK at them and not do ANYTHING else.
This kind of reaction is usually called “shallow.”
But Oscar Wilde, often criticized in his day for being shallow, had a thing or two to say about that, my favorite one being:
It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.