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.
Brigitte Bardot, Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”
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.
Sheila! I got almost halfway through your fabulous review and stopped. I think I’m either going today or tomorrow, so I didn’t want to read anymore till I saw it. I realized while I was reading this I had a big grin on my face. I can’t wait to see the Angie/Brad show!
Sheila Well, we went last night, it was great!! I went to the ladies room afterwards and from behind a stall I heard two women come in loudly declaring how much they hated it. “What was that?! Who wants to watch those conceited two prance around for two hours? (me!) “There was no plot!” “She looked awful, so skinny, she looked like death!” All this and they were so mad it was making me quietly laugh to myself.
Your review just said it all for me. And it is a “hoot” we laughed so much! When he first catches her at the hole. She looks so ridiculous sitting there! When they cracked up watching them open their presents. When they got them drunk. Afterwards, Pitt, “Well that was painful” Jolie “I hope it was worth it” As they hurry to the hole.
I was laughing at the opening shot. They are so ridiculously beautiful you just laugh!
You can see how he probably makes her laugh in real life. “We have to stop being assholes.” She’s funny too, in a surprising way, and different from him. “We don’t like people or boats” Then they both crack up at this.
How they are watched all the time in real life and they turn the tables on this spying this couple. How she is jealous of someone who is really the total opposite of her, younger, blond, light, fun, makes sense, she can’t compete with that, she’s nothing like that. But I love how Jolie doesn’t make this couple stupid.
“She is as breathtaking as Bardot, Anouk Aimee, any screen goddess you want to mention” Heelll yeah! She can be scary as hell too, I think she out Crawfords Joan Crawford! All those gorgeous balcony shots of her I thought of that quote by J.D. Salinger, “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”
Regina – Ha!!! I love all of your comments.
Yes, when he comes in and busts her sitting on the floor right by the hole in the wall. She looks SO guilty and SO busted. But then I love how he gets sucked in. The two of them sitting on the floor, dinner spread out in front of them, taking turns peering through the hole in the wall?? Who wouldn’t find this funny?
“We don’t like people or boats.” Ha.
I also liked when he came home drunk – and they sort of have an argument, but he’s too drunk – and he flops in bed and she is so PISSED and she starts kicking at him – and he’s shouting “Ow” but also laughing hysterically? That felt so real to me.
// How she is jealous of someone who is really the total opposite of her, younger, blond, light, fun, makes sense, she can’t compete with that, she’s nothing like that. But I love how Jolie doesn’t make this couple stupid. //
I love this observation. It’s also interesting – and GREAT – that Jolie made her character sort of an emptied-out un-fun person – so despite the fact that she is gorgeous – no, she doesn’t “have it all” – only somehow Jolie didn’t put this across in a self-satisfied way, or a “Look how hard I have it” way. It was … the character’s emptiness responding with envy to a younger woman who seems to engage with life freely, who seems happy.
ALSO: another level, and not sure what you feel about this: Jolie’s character USING her beauty, finally, in an act of treachery against that couple and against her husband. Sort of acknowledging the power she has – its danger – and how UGLY truly beautiful people can be, if they haven’t developed a personality. I mean, her motivations are clear – once she starts fucking with that couple – but there was something there for me about the emptiness of being so beautiful that nobody can deal with you, that your beauty is all there is to you – and when she decides to use it consciously, it is the ugliest moment in the film. I may be over-thinking it – but I thought there was something interesting there. Not really stated outright, but there.
LOVE the J.D. Salinger quote.
and what is it like to BE that woman – objectified by everyone, including herself – so much so that she is totally emptied out. And it’s made all the more extreme since she and her husband have nothing to distract them – his writing is going to the dogs, she has nothing to contribute – nothing to distract her … She has not replaced the void left by the ending of her dancing career with anything else. She has not rolled with that punch at ALL.
I loved the scene when they went dancing – and she went crazy on the dance floor. The scene starts so nice and then …. derails. It had practically a Gena Rowlands-ish disturbing quality – and loved how Jolie chose to film that from the ceiling of mirrors so the image was all fragmented. Obvious choice, yes, but this goes back to what I was trying to say in the piece: Not all art is supposed to be subtle. This is a romantic melodrama. No shame in that genre. Pull out all the stops.
I agree that Jolie can be scary.
It’s interesting – my friend Mitchell and I were talking about her once. He said, “She’s good, I think she’s really good, but when she’s put in movies where it is not acknowledged that she is the most gorgeous person in any room – I don’t buy it.” We were discussing The Changeling. Mitchell said, “She’s so good in it – but I’m sorry – she walks into a police station and none of the cops do a double-take. It totally pulls me out of the movie. Because come on, look at that woman.”
I agree with this. And Hollywood used to be set up to deal with such freaks of beauty. Like Joan Crawford or Cary Grant. Their looks are acknowledged every second in how they are filmed. Hollywood is so in love with kitchen-sink realism that it does not know how to deal with Beauty anymore, or with these supernaturally beautiful creatures. There are exceptions, of course – but those ladies in the bathroom, sniffing at the vanity of the people onscreen … that’s part of the problem. The culture is suspicious of Beauty like that – it wonders what they’re up to, what designs they have on us. They label it: “vain” “self-indulgent.”
In a way, though, By the Sea is a totally realistic film – because Angelina Jolie could never be an extra, could never play a regular housewife type – I’m sorry, she couldn’t, and she has been smart not to try. She knows who she is.
So glad you saw it and had a similar response. I thought it was a lot of fun.
I haven’t read the review – and not even sure what outlet it’s in – maybe Rolling Stone – but it shot up on the screen when I Googled the film’s title – and the headline is something like, “Angelina Jolie really really wants you to look at her breasts.”
This is vicious on so many levels – VICIOUS. It’s also un-true. That shower scene, where you see her breasts, was completely non-sexual. And also the most intimate scene in the film – where you see her complete panic about any sexual activity. And the scene with her in the bathtub – was one of the most “normal” scenes in the film – a couple trying to work their problems out, him sitting on the toilet seat, her in the bath.
To then turn that into Jolie’s vanity – ESPECIALLY considering the fact that she had a double mastectomy – is the kind of vicious double-standard misogny that women face when they direct themselves. Nothing even close compares from the male side.
It disgusts me! I won’t even read the article – but the title alone was so dehumanizing.
It also reveals a hostility towards actors who have self-awareness. Jolie knows what she’s got, knows what the audience will bring to the film (an awareness of her mastectomy – does this RS person think Jolie doesn’t KNOW that that will come into our minds?? Of COURSE she knows – and she’s ADDRESSING it in a bold and self-aware way – kind of up-ending our expectations and turning our “curiosity” back inwards – almost implicating us in that kind of curiosity.)
God forbid actors declare they have something to say – or something to show us about themselves. And God forbid it’s a woman doing it.
This is a very self-aware kind of film – even though the characters are not self-aware. Jolie knows what she’s doing – presents herself as an object of curiosity – and then totally subverts it by making this woman a total nightmare.
People get really angry when actors are smart. I don’t know why that is. Envy, probably.
Fascinating insights, Sheila! Cannot wait to see the movie.
Can’t wait to hear your thoughts!! It’s melodramatic star-power vehicle… The kind Hollywood used to make all the time with no embarrassment!
I imagine your reaction will be extremely interesting Stevie!!
Oh yes, all those scenes you mentioned, when they progress to dinner, hilarious, and Pitt laughing when she was kicking him, yes, so real and funny.
I was thinking too of what you said it being like a Pinter play, in the way, being opaque and you don’t quite know what’s really going on. So many weird scenes and different levels going on. That simple scene with Pitt and the young girl when she is just casual and friendly and sits at his table in the cafe. It’s all weird and off and she doesn’t know why. Or Joli walking in the room to play cards with the girl looking like the cat just caught the canary. Or was it that going on? Was she at all attracted to the guy or was it all just to cause chaos. It’s the kind of movie I want to see again.
Jolie also has this great loneliness going on inside her, like Garbo, you just want to look and look! And how Jolie has everybody in the movie, the extras, observing and everybody just looking. Pitt watching the old guys, his sympathy and friendship with the bar owner, and he is all along the writer is at work.
It was just strange and mysterious and varied why she wanted to destroy this couple. She uses her beauty, yes, and I got the feeling it was fun for her on some level because it was easy to do this to those two because they were so innocent. I agree about what Mitchell says too, very funny and true! her beauty is so out there and almost alien, a freak of nature in her beauty and that kind of beauty you have to acknowledge it!
I love how Angie/Brad made a little art film, the opposite of Mr and Mrs. Smith!
And yes that’s pretty low and vicious and stupid to write something like that. And those two scenes in the bathroom were so intense and real and lovely.
Oh, I loved the scene when Jolie and Laurent play cards – and Jolie is so WEIRD – flat dead voice: “I don’t like cards.” (hahahaha of course you don’t. what DO you like?) and Laurent is so friendly and open – and then Pitt comes in and he’s just this thundercloud of suspicion.
Yes: so weird!! So much of it happens beneath language, right? It’s behavior and subtext. So when they DO talk – it’s startling. And he’s the open one – I loved his impatience with her, but also that you really get he’s pained about this whole situation and what his wife has become. He treats her like he’s her legal guardian as opposed to her husband. And what was so fascinating was that she allows it. She needs that care-taking but she also hates it, she’s also dead inside, yet she doesn’t want to be … It’s all so deep and swirly and intense.
// And how Jolie has everybody in the movie, the extras, observing and everybody just looking. //
I love that observation! The only person not looking around and observing everybody else was that fisherman in the boat going in and out of the harbor. He was just doing his own thing.
and yeah: when she’s seen putting on her makeup in the mirror, smoking … it’s FEROCIOUS. It’s in the trailer and it is just … seriously, she’s so beautiful it’s scary. and in the film she seems casually un-interested in that part of herself – it’s just her reality – but then in that scene, boy, she busts out the big guns. You think I’m pretty now, bitches? Getta loada me NOW.” Really bold – and vain, sure – but in a performative way – fierce and almost pissed – I thought it was really fun and movie-star-ish – as well as also totally in line with the story. When she wants to pull it together, girl pulls it toGETHer.
I was happy that they were coming together and having fun (spying on other people having sex hahahahaha) – but you knew the whole thing was so precarious. You knew it would derail.
and the fact that she seemed irresistibly drawn to destroying that couple – and she barely had any idea why she was doing it. I agree: if anything I think she was more attracted to the girl – not really in a sexual way – but just as an example of youth, freedom, sexiness – all the things that she can no longer do.
and how she buys the guy the same jacket that her husband wore? CRAZY!!!
I too love that when these two decided to make a movie together it’s this weird 70s-era art film – AND that it’s directed and written by her. Those two do whatever the hell they want to do!!
I’m pleased to see this. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but there was a review at the AV Club that was so bad I actually got angry. The whole point seemed to be 1) rich sad people are boring and 2) Angelina Jolie looks too perfect at all times. I’m as tired of wealthy misery as a subject as anyone, but I still acknowledge that it can be done well, and point 2 has nothing to do with anything. Not like Jolie needs me defending her, but that just isn’t a valid criticism at all. It has nothing to do with whether this movie is any good or not. And are we supposed to pretend she’s ordinary looking? Wouldn’t it be kind of insulting to the audience to act like we should buy that? There also seem to be a lot of people out there who believe she cannot act, which raises some interesting questions about what they think that means… I found it all very vicious.
One person in the comments raised a relevant point: that the seeming disconnect with the critic writing about this movie may be happening because Pitt and Jolie have old fashioned taste. They said this sounded like something Taylor and Burton would have filmed back in the day and their audience would have loved, but people have much less context for it now. That to me is an actual discussion point, not what most of the reviews have been saying.
I hope Kim Morgan writes about this one, I’m dying to know what she thinks. Oh, and I love that poster. Two of the biggest stars in the world and they’re not even on it. So much for vanity.
Desirae – haha Kim loved it – we were just discussing it on Facebook – I hope she writes about it too! She fell in love with it from the trailer:
// Two of the biggest stars in the world and they’re not even on it. //
Ha!! Didn’t even notice that! Hilarious – they don’t give a shit, in a way. I love that about them.
I didn’t read the AV Club piece – but much of what I have seen has been equally vicious (and also shallow: they are not engaging with the film at ALL.) Here we see the hostility towards actors that I find so disgusting and strange in the film critic world. There’s a “who do these people think they are” vibe – and – sorry, but Angie and Brad are more important than you will ever be, critics. Not like we all don’t have value in the world we all are special blah blah – but in show business land – these people have meaning and they matter and what they do should be engaged with because isn’t that your JOB?? – there’s a sneering thing that comes out towards actors from time to time (especially beautiful ones) – there’s almost a “just do what you’re told, and keep your mouth shut” thing. Mark my words: if someone other than Jolie had directed, people would be taking it more seriously and trying to engage with it. It’s gross.
I like the comment about old-fashioned taste!! I think that’s so true – and maybe if some of these critics watched movies that weren’t just made in the last 15, 20 years – they would see what Jolie was doing. This is Antonioni, Burton and Taylor – Bergman – the Woody Allen movie I mentioned – which nobody, except myself and Jason Bailey at Flavorwire – has clocked. It’s such an obvious connection and nod – to another film about a beautiful woman’s malaise – and the Woody Allen-nod gives a clue as to what Jolie is interested in, what she is actually doing.
I think she’s extremely successful at it.
I loved it – the more I think about it, the more I love it.
Normally I don’t put up links to my own stuff over on IMDB under “external reviews” (well, I do for the stuff I write for Roger Ebert – but not links to my own site) – but for this one I did. I just want to go on record that I think this is a fun and beautiful movie – and counter-act some of those dumb pans out there.
This is a very accurate, intelligent, and insightful review. I love the references to other films.
Can you check out this piece?
I would love it if you posted a comment and defended the film. There are also some people who clearly have an agenda agains Angelina.
Shushmi – I had read that piece on Paste and totally agree! It was nice to see.
I see my essay here as my “defense” of the film so hopefully people will find it (a couple of good links on Twitter have already brought some folks over here who want to discuss).
There are some other excellent thoughtful pieces about the film (by men and women) – so they do exist: Here are some good ones:
Jason Bailey at Flavorwire:
I think the film will end up casting a very long shadow. The pans will end up being irrelevant – or, at least, evidence that a lot of film critics missed the point.
Oh and it has pleased me so much to see all of the commenters in this thread alone who have gone to see the film – men and women – and really responded to it. Some really insightful stuff here!!
Like I said, I think this film will end up being more important in retrospect, unfortunately.
It’s on my Top 10 of the year.
// Angelina Jolie looks too perfect at all times. //
Again: if these people saw movies made before 1990, and understood the history of acting so that they knew that Meryl Streep giving herself brown teeth in Iron Weed was not the ONLY way to be a movie star, they would see actors who always looked “perfect at all times.”
Joan Crawford looked perfect at all times. Brigitte Bardot looked perfect at all times. Marilyn Monroe. Cary Grant. Elizabeth Taylor. Greta Garbo. Dietrich.
Doesn’t mean these actors aren’t good. But their beauty was part of the whole POINT. It’s art, it’s not a documentary.
When did people become so suspicious of beauty? We used to be able to tolerate it, and actually love it. The 1930s, 40s, 50s … those films celebrate beauty – It was part of the appeal of movie stars. Let’s go watch the gorgeous people be all sad and stressed out.
// And are we supposed to pretend she’s ordinary looking? Wouldn’t it be kind of insulting to the audience to act like we should buy that? //
That’s exactly right! Jolie is always best when her beauty is PART of whatever she’s doing onscreen. She’s been very smart that way.
And she can’t act? These people don’t know what they’re talking about. Gia? Girl Interrupted? Lara Tomb Raider? Salt? Maleficent?
This makes me think that these people don’t know what acting IS.
Michael Fassbender losing 80 pounds for “Hunger” or Robert De Niro gaining 80 pounds for “Raging Bull” is REAL acting to them, I imagine. That’s the only way they know how to measure it.
(and also, if Angelina Jolie gained 80 pounds for a movie, these people would find a way to sneer at that too. There’s a lot of free-floating misogyny going on here, a lot of hostility towards this woman who does whatever the hell she wants to do.)
Sheila And considering all the work Jolie and Pitt do in this war-torn world. I mean all the work she does for the UN with refugees? I think she might have something to say out side of movies too.
And I was in New Orleans a couple of years after Katrina. On a bus going through the still devastated ninth ward a woman in back of me was making racist comments the whole way. – It was all their fault, why didn’t they just leave?, etc… I was refraining myself from turning around and smacking her when we got up to the (many!) houses Pitt was building there. It was being explained to us how they were being built, making sure the people who lost their homes got them, etc. I thought to myself “say something now bitch, I’m sure you’ll find something to say” She actually went quiet that whole stretch and then said begrudgingly “I guess that’s okay”
I love what you say about beauty! I was looking at stills of Dietrich the other day. Her startling beauty so thrilling and dramatic and she was a great actress, of course. (And another one who put her ass on the line during WWII)
And the old fashioned taste. “This is Antonioni, Burton and Taylor – Bergman – the Woody Allen film I mentioned” Yes!
It’s like this movie is one giant peep hole.
I was thinking about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. What made this movie so great for me was that you can feel how much they loved each other. When they laughed together, you knew how much fun they had. They snicker together at times about the younger couple. And then they reveal the self-loathing they have too. They have a deeper relationship then the younger “happier, adjusted couple” in spite of their knock down, drag out heavy fights. As with By the Sea, as bad as it is between them now its’ still more interesting then the perfect couple next door.
The last shot is about her writing. And she says something about writing that I think about because I am not a writer. As an actress and a painter I can hide a little behind something. I mean, it’s pretty obvious it’s me but I can say, hey this is something else. I know as a writer you can write fiction but it still feels to me the most revealing art. But you have to write about what’s really going on deep instead you. And it’s about her for him. And he asks her for her permission to write about her at the end. And it’s Jolie who wrote the movie! So many different levels.
Regina – great thoughts about Beauty. Beauty is so profound – or it can be. It’s not just a surface – it’s saying something about life, and our fantasies, and wishes/hopes, blah blah – and these fabulous creatures can be representative of that, even when they mess with our expectations (like Cary Grant scrabbling in the dirt from the crop-dusting plane in his immaculate suit – great!!)
// They have a deeper relationship then the younger “happier, adjusted couple” in spite of their knock down, drag out heavy fights. //
Right! We the audience bring all this knowledge to them – because they are so famous that they practically CAN’T “disappear” into a role anymore – so how fun to bring all of that to this film. We are also peeking through that hole in the wall.
// And he asks her for her permission to write about her at the end. And it’s Jolie who wrote the movie! So many different levels. //
Ooh – I really like that!
Oh Sheila I meant to say more about writing, not only revealing yourself is hard, but the harder thing to me about being a writer was how to write honestly about what you feel the deepest about and not hurt anybody else in the process, like the person who is sharing his life with you, the people you love and not feel you betrayed them.
Regina – not sure if you saw the interview Angie and Brad did on The Today Show with Tom Brokaw (I think it was The Today Show). It’s really good – they both look relaxed and open – and she talks a lot about her surgeries (connecting it to her mother – as everything for her is connected to her mother). And there’s a lot there she’s not saying because it’s nobody’s business – but it’s there. Anxiety about not feeling like a woman anymore because she doesn’t have “women’s parts” anymore and how Brad helped her with that.
and if you see that interview, watch the expression on her face when she describes being in the hospital with her mother and hearing the woman howling in grief down the hall.
So to then take all that – her experience – her mother’s experience – the woman down the hall – and turn it into the story we saw in the film … I mean, that’s what art is about. It’s not strictly autobiographical – but personal art always calls upon personal things. Stephen King writes out his own nightmares, the things that frighten him most. So Jolie – facing all of these things – wrote this script as a way to cope – and it’s like she’s writing out her worst fears, right?
She has a husband, children, she is aware of how fortunate she is (unlike the ex-dancer in the movie) – she was able to make her OWN choice about her health (unlike the woman in the movie) … but she is not unaware of the nightmare of the situation, and how PERSONAL these issues are for any woman. It’s not autobiographical but art is often a way to HANDLE reality – HANDLE your own autobiography.
So in that context, By the Sea is a great work of imagination and empathy. Not like “Oh thank goodness I’m so fortunate” but … “let me remove the sense of gratitude, let me remove my own fortune – and THEN see what this would feel like …”
I’m not sure if I’m making myself clear …
There’s both a distance AND a closeness in the script of By the Sea – and Jolie knows that, uses it, and then retreats from it.
She said openly that the scene in Maleficent where her wings were chopped off – she drew on her own experience – and also her work with rape victims in refugee camps, etc. She didn’t set out to “make a statement” – she does that already with her UN work – but that scene became – somehow – an expression of all of that – within the context of a fairy-tale story.
This is art. This is how actors use themselves.
Here’s the Tom Brokaw interview with Jolie/Pitt.
Sheila Oh that’s very clear! thank you! ” there’s both a distance AND a closeness in the script of By the Sea – and Joli knows that, uses it, and retreats from it” YES! I did not see that interview, amazing, I’ll look for it!
I just put up a link to it. It’s really good. Not much about the movie itself (it hadn’t opened yet) – but the surrounding context from which she wrote the script.
I don’t have anything as insightful to say about this as you and Regina, but I do want to say that I just saw it and thought it was very good.
I was expecting to have to work harder to like this, but I simply enjoyed it at what I think of as a plot and character level. I cared about the characters. I wanted Roland and Vanessa to be happy. Brad and Angelina did that. As actors. I wanted Roland and Vanessa to find a way to accommodate their grief. Her grief. Like you Sheila, I guessed early on what the source of her unhappiness was. I don’t think it was bad storytelling to make it easy enough to guess. If it had been her intention, Angelina could have made it more opaque if she didn’t have those flashes, those flashbacks. It was clear that grief, with all its disorientations, was at the root of their unhappiness. Grief at the lost potential, at the lost possibilities; at the loss of longed-for loves.
I was expecting to have to view this at some meta level to enjoy it. “Enjoy” is perhaps the wrong word to use on what seemed to me like an extended fugue on grief. Appreciate. Invest in. Care about. I cared about all five of the principals. I really liked Michel: a believer since it gave him hope of seeing his wife again. Francois was the least likable, though who could resist “”ing Angelina/Vanessa if given a modest amount of flirting and a hint of availability? I realize “likable” is a curse here. He was a real person, also. I wanted everyone to have the life they hoped for, just as Roland wished Lea after the boat trip. The writing and the acting did that.
It was a challenge to watch Melanie Laurent smoke without thinking of Inglorious Basterds. I failed the challenge, apparently.
I’m also with you and Regina on the humor in the movie. “Let’s have dinner in so we can watch the couple next door fuck.” Roland kissing Vanessa just after he’d barfed. And her washing her mouth out with room-temperature wine. “We have to stop being assholes.” Roland stumbling up those endless steps after getting shit-faced.
I loved how Vanessa’s eyes could go from ferociously perceptive to lost and inward. I loved how Roland was devoted to the habit of letting his wife know he loved and appreciated her. I didn’t agree with Dargis’ comment about him being inattentive – I think that habit is the tribute that discipline pays to ardor. But I’m 7 months divorced, so what the fuck do I know? Do we all see the same movie? Don’t know. Don’t think so. Especially something that is as personal as marriage and grief and loss, like this movie.
At any rate, the movie was very good. Thanks for the recommendation.
The scene when Vanessa comes out of the church, the scene where Vanessa comes back to the hotel room soaking wet. That’s why they are world-class actors. We care about them because they can do that for us.
The more I think about it, the more this is one of my favorite movies of the year. It hasn’t left me. Kim Morgan’s piece is excellent.
There’s a lot more going on here – and I’m happy to see a lot of other pieces celebrating it as opposed to dismissing it.
Someone who got it, thank you shelia. Great Piece. A film like this won’t be appreciated for years to come.
So glad I read your review. I went to see the film. It was great.
I can not remember the last time I saw a movie wherein two adults, who love each other, have problems and go through the real pain to work them out.
I’m so happy to hear this!
I so agree that it was very moving to see a couple really in the thick of it with each other – trying to work it out. It brought them both to some really unexpected places.
I have a feeling the stature of this movie will grow in years to come. It’s being ignored/dismissed now – but I have a feeling that won’t last too long.
So glad I saw this during its (brief) run — reading the part of this article above the frame from Contempt was all I needed to convince me!
Going to pull a Dave Kehr quote out of context (he was talking about the dismissal of genre filmmakers, but the basic idea of engaging with what a film is trying to do translates) — I think about it a lot: “It seems like that lesson never gets learned. Each generation of critics blows it in their own way.”
wow, thanks so much for that Dave Kehr quote. That is really spot on.
I wonder if some of this has to do with groupthink – I see it playing out on social media – where festival “buzz” starts to somehow flow into this magnetic vortex of sameness – in a way that just didn’t happen before social media. Groupthink is very powerful – it happens invisibly, and there’s a “vibe” or a “buzz” that is “in the air” about a film (or anything else) and that “vibe” then impacts how you SEE something. And if you don’t go along with groupthink – if you somehow manage to resist it – you can see it really clearly.
I really try to avoid any critical assessment whatsoever before I see something because I don’t want it in my damn head as I’m watching a movie!
Not that there aren’t reasons to dislike By the Sea – but in almost every piece I saw about it, there was a REFUSAL to actually ENGAGE with the film itself – as you say in your comment. I’m a contrarian – it got my back up – before I had even seen By the Sea I was pissed off at the tone of these “pans.” So un-curious are these critics, so ready to dismiss, and so EAGER to dismiss (that, for me, was the tip-off, that ugly eagerness.) AND – just from the nature of those criticisms, I thought, “I bet I’m going to love this damn thing.”
And I did.
I’m so glad you responded to it too! This is the time of year for compiling Top Movies lists for various outlets, and By the Sea has definitely made the cut. (I don’t like lists, in general, but it’s part of what you have to do, so be it.)
I still think that By the Sea will be one of those movies people look back on and think, “Wow, the critics really got that one wrong.” Unfortunately, the critics have been so savage that barely anyone has seen it – but hopefully it will have a second and more powerful life in DVD/Blu-ray rentals, streaming, whatever.
It’s interesting – just the other day I happened to re-read Pauline Kael’s famous review on FUNNY GIRL – and I’ve read it before, but the opening paragraph in this most recent reading suddenly made me think of BY THE SEA. What Kael talks about here is (in my opinion) is why such beautiful strange creatures – as actors often are – get the kind of sneering reaction that they often do. It’s bad form to just ascribe it to envy – but honestly I think that’s a lot of what is going on. Mediocre people, who don’t make a lot of money, get incensed about these famous people, gifted in the DNA department, who “show them up” in terms of ease-of-lifestyle/access/power whatever. Peter Manso’s amazingly bitchy 3,000 page biography of Brando, which is one sneer after another, is an example of that.
anyway, here’s Kael on Streisand:
“Barbra Streisand arrives on the screen, in FUNNY GIRL, when the movies are in desperate need of her. The timing is perfect. There’s hardly a star in American movies today, and if we’ve got so used to the absence of stars that we no longer think about it much, we’ve also lost one of the great pleasures of moviegoing: watching incandescent people up there, more intense and dazzling than people we ordinarily encounter in life, and far more charming than the extraordinary people we encounter, because the ones on the screen are objects of pure contemplation – like athletes all wound up in the stress of competition – and we don’t have to undergo the frenzy or the risks of being involved with them. In life, fantastically gifted people, people who are driven, can be too much to handle; they can be a pain. In plays, in opera, they’re divine, and on the screen, where they can be seen in their perfection, and where we’re even safer from them, they’re MORE divine.”
BY THE SEA isn’t “pretty”, like a perfume ad, or art-directed to death like some “perfect” art-y film. The acting has the guts and the nasty underbelly and the strange motivations to ground it – it’s not “pretty” at all.
But my initial response to it (and I look forward to seeing it again!) was that overwhelming appreciation of being able to sit back and just LOOK at these two extraordinary actors creating this weird weird relationship. I really appreciate Kael’s expression of what that feels like, and what that provides an audience.
Are audiences so “past that” now? Why do they accept the “unreal” so readily with comic-book movies or wizard-Hobbit movies – and refuse to do so in something far better like this?
Ah well, people are strange!
Yes, I think of Twitter as the best/worst thing — it brings the critics-circle post-screening impressions out into a wider audience, making me more aware of what’s out there, but also, when I read those comments, I often think along the lines of, “Okay, someone’s already said that — now if I’m going to write about this I can’t get anywhere near repeating that.” It’s that contrarian idea you mention. I’ll never reflect on something positively just because others haven’t, but it’s something that enters my mind more than I’d like it to.
I saw this on Twitter recently, and, while I think there’s some value to contributing to a critical discussion, I thought it was a good reminder of how insular criticism can get: “Too much music discourse, across the spectrum of taste and popularity, takes the shape of “arguing with my mentions” instead of critique.”
That Kael quote is great. One of the few writers who I’ll read on movies I haven’t seen, and might never see.
That tone to the reviews — that resentment, I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if a large part of that comes from celebrity coverage, which always has some aspect of a repulsed attitude toward stars. Jolie doesn’t get discussed as an artist much (she doesn’t often take large prestige roles, and when she does direct, (taking a very interesting route toward projects!), her name is, in the case of Unbroken for example, sidelined compared to the Coens and Deakins), so when she does do something like this, I guess it isn’t a surprise when the larger public, and entertainment “reporters” fall into those habits. But critics should know better.
One of the things that crossed my mind while watching By the Sea as a potential criticism was that it was drawing so much from past films on the subject, it was deliberately, as was pointed out, old-fashioned, that perhaps it was close to becoming one of those films that just ends up as an endless reference to other films — that thought quickly got killed though, because there’s so much about this film that is free and contemporary — even its pace, in the cutting and camera movement, does not, in any way I can see, resemble Antonioni, Godard, Rossellini, or Allen.
There’s an essay on the film over at MUBI that said this well:
“It’s like the film keeps breaking off in mid-sentence. It has that energy. A good part of how this is achieved is through weird audio collages that blur the action and move it ahead but not in any rational way. It’s just painterly, essayistic, and intuitive.
At the very least, let’s praise how sharp and spiky the very end of the movie is. It’s a seemingly improvised explosive device. If you aren’t thinking ‘what the fuck just happened’ as you leave the theatre, check your pulse. You’re resting much too much. Underestimate this filmmaker at your own risk.”
That Mubi quote is so so good. // You’re resting much too much. // Goosebumps!
And I think you’re right that celebrity reporting – so disrespectful, voracious, with that underpinning of contempt – seeps into the reviews – especially when it’s such a huge star.
My beef (often) is that critics often don’t understand acting – they love directing and think they understand it – but acting remains somewhat magical to them. Or they don’t respect actors, somehow … They cackle with glee about Hitchcock’s “cattle” comment – not understanding the context in which he said that, and then taking it on as their own attitude – without understanding what actors bring to projects. What they DO understand in regards to acting is performances that are obvious and visible: Robert De Niro gaining weight for Raging Bull. Michael Fassbender LOSING weight for Hunger. Charlize Theron uglying herself up for Monster. Those obvious transformations (which I, personally, am not impressed by at all – and think a lot of that stuff is 1. show-boating and 2. horrible for the actor’s health – not to mention a failure of the imagination on the part of the actor. Russell Crowe has said that gaining weight for The Insider wrecked his metabolism for all time and if he could do it again, he wouldn’t go that route: I’m with Crowe. Put on a fat suit, actors, and stop whining.) anyway – these “stunts” are very very impressive to some critics. Whereas good old-fashioned star quality seems somehow suspicious to them. (They should have been alive in the 30s and 40s, man. What would they have made of Bogart or Joan Crawford?) Or – they don’t UNDERSTAND how difficult it is to project SELF the way those old-fashioned movie stars did. (Or people like Jolie still do. She’s old-school, on the old-school model. I love that about her.)
So the critics dismiss, refuse to engage, continuously say the stupidest sentence on the planet: “He just played himself.” If I’ve done one thing I’m proud of, it’s that people who read me have told me that they have now caught themselves about to say “He was just playing himself” and then stopped – remembering what I wrote – and examined what else might be going on. Or what they might be missing. You can still not LIKE those performances – but you had better not rest on “He just played himself.” Lazy. And INCORRECT.
I saw some critic say on Twitter: “The problem with Greta Gerwig is that every movie she’s in becomes a Greta Gerwig movie.”
This is a critic who makes a living (sort of) writing about movies. This is a DEEPLY stupid statement coming from someone who spends most of his time writing about movies.
I wanted to say (but didn’t, because I don’t argue with people on Twitter): “Uhm, yeah. That’s called Being a Star, dumb-ass.”
You may not LIKE Greta Gerwig, but you cannot deny that she is, actually, a STAR, and in a kind of old-school model (Lombard) mixed with 1970s quirk/awkwardness (Keaton/Clayburgh). Leading Ladies, in other words. And she’s not a “transformationalist”. I don’t think that’s in her wheelhouse at all.
So she’s in things now that are clearly vehicles for HER, personally. And whatever she does, she brings her Gerwig-ness. Because, Twitter-person, that’s what it used to mean to be a star. Not gaining 80 pounds.
I get so frustrated with this attitude – because it’s so unexamined, first of all – it’s so not-well-thought-out.
What else is Greta Gerwig supposed to do? Fade into the scenery? Play an uptight spinster to prove her seriousness? Do these people not understand acting at all? Or the “star system” and how it STILL operates?
// One of the things that crossed my mind while watching By the Sea as a potential criticism was that it was drawing so much from past films on the subject, it was deliberately, as was pointed out, old-fashioned, that perhaps it was close to becoming one of those films that just ends up as an endless reference to other films — that thought quickly got killed though, because there’s so much about this film that is free and contemporary — even its pace, in the cutting and camera movement, does not, in any way I can see, resemble Antonioni, Godard, Rossellini, or Allen. //
I can see that. I agree that the edits and camera moves don’t mimic the film-makers I mentioned – at all – and the mishmash of influences make the film its own weird hybrid.
I like the quote about the film breaking off in mid-sentence. This is the Pinter thing I got … the pauses, elongated and full and mysterious … their elliptical qualities … By the Sea called to mind a theatrical production of Pinter’s “Old Times” that I saw – these weird deadly silences, the feeling of busted-up relationships that did not exist in the language, the refusal of the characters to narrate their inner lives for us, the audience. Pinter is very very revealing. He’s very hard to do, for actors. Because actors really want to be clear. They’re trained to be clear. Pinter doesn’t let you. He makes you hold back. He’s a very very demanding playwright.
By the Sea could be a great theatre production too! You wouldn’t have to do too much to it and it could be transferred right to the stage.
Jolie is a good writer – and, in my opinion, she’s just getting better and better. I love some anecdote I read – she had been thinking about writing her first film, about the war in Bosnia, and she was thinking about it for a couple of years. She would talk to Pitt about it, constantly, working it out in her language. “So I want to do this … and make sure I get this part clear … and maybe it would be good to do this …” until finally Pitt had had it and said, “I don’t want to hear one more word about this movie until you show me some pages.” hahaha In other words: Woman, enough perseverating: WRITE IT DOWN. So Jolie went into their attic for three days non-stop and wrote the first draft, basically because Brad was sick of hearing about it and wanted her to get started.
That anecdote is eloquent of so many things. It’s hard to imagine Jolie being insecure about something – and it’s nice to realize that she, like other writers, has a hard time starting. It’s eloquent of their relationship, and how she leans on him, and how he’s willing to put a stop to it if he thinks she’s leaning too much.
I need to see the film again so that I can get past the acting (difficult for me) and really look at the structure of those camera movements, the editing, and the sound. They all worked on me – the movie was like a dream – but I was more focused on the two of them, and that Beauty factor, and how they used it.
It’ll be very interesting to study this movie in a more in-depth way.
I have just re-read your wonderful critique for umpteenth time Sheila.Such a well written review and I totally agree with you about the film.Thank you so much for writing it.It is one of the finest pieces of critiquing that I have ever read.
On another note,what Woody Allen films did you find the film reminiscent of?
John – Thank you so much! I was so pissed off about the critical dismissal of the film I wrote another piece about it! http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=110896
Oh, and for me – Jolie’s nod to Another Woman (which I reference near the end of this post) is pretty clear. Remember how Gena Rowlands hears a psychiatrist’s sessions through a grate in her office, and gets sucked into the world of her subconscious, and her past – through listening to the patient (Mia Farrow) sob about her life? It’s that hole in the wall – grate in the wall – that somehow – magically – makes growth and change possible.
Also, because I know Jolie and Rowlands are such good friends – it’s got to be an explicit nod towards that beautiful WA film.
I thank you again for the kind words and for re-reading my piece. It really means a lot – especially with this film.
You are very welcome Sheila.
I watched “Another Woman” for the first time during the weekend and what a wonderful film it is.I totally see what you mean the influence on Jolie’s film.The older woman who is at a particular stage in life who through acts of voyeurism starts to find her way back to being the person that she once was.Of course Jolie’s film goes down a much darker and more perverse route but you absolutely can see the influence there.
I tried watching “Contempt” a few weeks ago and though I admired what I saw I just could not connect with it.I can see the influences there on “By The Sea” as well (though perhaps not quite as much as many others do).
“By The Sea” reminded me somewhat of the first hour of Claude Chabrol’s “Les Biches” with the one woman becoming erotically entranced with another and seeking to control her.Also,the film’s languid,erotic and elegant tone was very reminiscent of Jolie’s.I have also heard of people comparing the film to the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder but as I have not yet seen any of his films I can’t comment on that.
To me the biggest influence that I can see on “By The Sea” is Nicolas Roeg.The film has quite strong echoes of his work,possibly “Don’t Look Now” in particular with the premise of the troubled though sensual couple coping with a dark event in their lives in foreign climes.Both film of course have a central mystery at the heart of their stories as well and they both have a spectral,otherwordly feel to them as well.Also,the bathroom scenes in Jolie’s film are reminiscent of those in Roeg’s film.Both films have the use of water and and other reflective surfaces as a motif as well.There are also slight echoes of Roeg’s “Bad Timing” in terms of the sexually charged and provocative drama about a troubled romantic relationship.
John – Contempt is rather hard to connect with although I have a film critic friend who says it’s one of the best movies about marriage she has ever seen, and I tend to agree with her. That long long scene where she takes a bath – all that talk!
I love your observation about Les Biches – I can totally see that. And I also think the Don’t Look Now connection is extremely insightful and now I’m embarrassed I didn’t think of it. :) Thank you!
A couple re-connecting sexually in the midst of a tragedy threatening to rupture their relationship.
// Of course Jolie’s film goes down a much darker and more perverse route //
I guess I would argue there is just as much perversity in Another Woman – the memories that are stirred up – Betty Buckley’s rant about her ovaries at the engagement party (some of the best acting I have ever seen in my life), and the phenomenal scene with Sandy Dennis – ugly and raw – plus all the sexual shenanigans with poor Gene Hackman: this cold and elegant woman has had one hell of a past (breaking up relationships, mainly – and yet she floats through it all with an air of plausible deniability) – !!! As I’ve gotten older, the ending seems much less hopeful to me than it did before. After all we’ve seen in the film – her “making things right’ with everyone rings a little hollow, and it seems she has just “reverted to type.” This is not a criticism of the film at all. It’s just that when I saw it in my 20s I didn’t have much life experience. Now that I’m older, it strikes me as a much more ambiguous ending – similar to By the Sea.
By the Sea is finally out on DVD and my copy just arrived – I can’t wait until I have some free time to sit down and watch it again – and pause and rewind to my heart’s content!
Thanks again for all your observations about other film connections – this film is so so so rich!
Fassinder is another interesting connection – I’ll have to think more about that. I love his stuff – I believe Criterion just came out with a box set of some kind? Very challenging great stuff, and a lot of great stuff on men and women.
I also love this essay on the film.I hope you don’t mind me sharing the link you on your own site.I think you may appreciate the piece.
John – yes, I read that one! It’s very good!
I was very happy that I was not alone in championing this film – but boy, the critical dismissal of it (overall) got me fired up. Nobody was engaging with what the film actually was, and what it was trying to do.
It’s an example of critics getting caught up in celebrity culture. You really need to resist that if you want to see a work clearly – but so many critics can’t. I avoid as much “info-tainment” tabloid news as I can, although I can’t avoid all of it. You can’t get sucked into judging a work based on the FAME of the participants – there’s so much resentment towards famous people, even among critics – who spend the majority of their time watching shit starring famous people. You’d think they’d know better.
We’ve been having a very good time on another thread listing our favorite “movie posters” – and By the Sea had some great ones. Angelina is not a slacker: she knew what she wanted, she got it.
Yeah it’s a great article.I am a tad unclear as to what the writer meant about the real grief that Vanessa was suffering from,grief for “a closeted self trying to out itself”.Perhaps you could shed some light on that? And also on what the writer meant in their praise for the very end and the twist/reveal? I would be very interested in hearing what you made of that.
It is great to see that the film has a community of passionate advocates and the writing that has been produced as a result of it (including yours of course) has been fantastic.
I love how that writer really grapples with the film – its obvious structure, its obvious mood – and how it drives him crazy, how it draws him in. It’s a very honest review.
I think maybe the “closeted self” is what we’ve been talking about – seeing the happy sexual girl through the hole in the wall is what this “barren” devastated woman has inside of her – OR, more likely perhaps, she DOESN’T have inside of her, and she feels that loss, the ache of envy. Is it too late for her? What, exactly, is trying to be born here?
One of the things I love so much about the film is it leaves its central mystery intact. There is no one explanation. Which is also very very 1970s.
You mean that Vanessa sees what Lea is inside of her own self and is mourning the loss of it?
Having finally seen this I’m now dying to talk about it. For one I’m baffled by the critical response to this movie; I found the pacing a little slow but not out of bounds for this kind of movie (Jane Campion moves no faster and I love her) and certain bits of dialogue are stilted, but then these are stilted people. There’s nothing here that could possible support the panning it got because at very worst some people might find it a bit boring. I can’t say I was ever bored.
Really can’t say enough about how beautiful it is. That kind of beauty doesn’t just happen – Jolie knew exactly how she wanted each shot to look. And though I suspect some in the audience wanted an ironic distance they weren’t going to get, the movie announces what it is in the opening shot of them driving along a curving road to zippy french music. It doesn’t intend to be a modern film. We are in full melodrama territory here, though not without humour. It’s a movie for people who miss thinking ‘I bet she smells amazing” when they see an actor onscreen and aren’t afraid of subtitles.
There’s a shot of Vanessa when Lea comes over for cards. We see Lea pass by Vanessa (all in black) as she comes through the door and sit down; we see Vanessa watch her go by with huge, hungry eyes (almost inhumanly big in this role); we see the vulnerable back of her neck and shoulders as Vanessa comes up behind her.
And I realized in that moment: this is a vampire movie. In attempting to ‘feed’ off the couple next door Roland and Vanessa accidentally create potential carbon copies of themselves. Right down to their wardrobes. (“Did they look nice? Did they look nice?” Vanessa asks from the bathtub.)
There’s more to say, but that will do for now.
Desirae – I am so sorry it has taken me this long to get back to your comment. I had it flagged in my mind as something I wanted to return to!
I agree that there is nothing – zip – zero – here that warrants the panning it got. I love the comment from Uncas Blythe – whose Mubi review is definitely worth reading (John linked to it above):
If this By the Sea, with all its creaky dollhouse dust, had been made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder or by Todd Haynes I bet you all $10 everybody (and Scott Rudin in particular) would be creaming their jeans. But movie stars are pretty much never allowed to be clever or ironic. Or deep. Movie stars are earnest, aren’t they? But beware of a holy whore, dudes!
That’s it, exactly. Critics are pissed at the “entitlement” of celebrities who think they can … do exactly what they want … and how dare they … Imma take Angie down a PEG and it’ll feel GOOD. It was extremely childish and dumb. Critics always complain about blockbusters and that complex personal films don’t get a fair shake. And then they trash this. Dummies.
// t’s a movie for people who miss thinking ‘I bet she smells amazing” //
Ha! Yes!! It’s the reaction that Brigitte Bardot gets … or someone like that. Monica Vitti. “What would her hair feel like? I bet her skin is so soft. I … kinda want to see her naked? And sorry about that? I mean it with respect! She’s so beautiful!”
// this is a vampire movie. //
What a brilliant observation.
I just bought the DVD and I need to watch it again.
Oh, and one more thing that I suddenly remembered – I saw a lot of people saying that Vanessa’s ‘trauma’, if you will, was either too trite or too old fashioned. And maybe it is, but the way it tied in to what happens with Lea –
Lets just say that what Roland says to Vanessa when he comes back from talking to them at the bus stop (or taxi or wherever that was) was a total bullet of a line to me. I gasped, I wasn’t expecting it at all. That poor girl.
// was either too trite or too old fashioned. //
This baffles me. As well as the sneering about Angelina “using” that – when she is a lucky woman who has six children, and is a Mama Bear already, and how dare she …”
The woman just had a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy. How dare these men – all men – sneer at the fact that she would actually have feelings about ending her fertility, and want to work that out in film? Argh. So sexist and blinkered about women’s feelings about their bodies.
// Lets just say that what Roland says to Vanessa when he comes back from talking to them at the bus stop //
I don’t remember. What did he say?
I’ll watch it again so I can remind myself.
Sheila I can’t remember that either and I saw it twice. Guess I’ll have to watch it again too!
After he returns to the hotel and finds Vanessa on the balcony, he says something like “She’s pregnant. But I assume you knew that.”
Oh man. I feel like I just got shot.
You folks might find this of interest but Angelina originally envsisioned “By The Sea” as a comedy.She says so at around the 5 minute and 30 second mark in this DGA interview below
DGA interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHHPPAyay4M
She also mentions it in the making of that is included on the Blu-ray release of the film which I have posted below.She talks about it at the 1 minute 50 second mark.
It would have been very interesting to see what this vision of the film would have been like as well.How could they have done it as a comedy??
My apologies,this is the link for the making of that is included on the Blu-ray.Like I said she mentions what I was talking about above at 1 minute and 50 second mark.
John – I so loved that DGA interview!
I actually felt the movie was very funny! In the way Godard’s stuff is often hilarious. I mean, Masculin Feminin. How on earth can those dead-faced flat-affect Marxists be funny? Or abortion? Somehow it is. Very dark cynical humor, coming out of post-War malaise/cynicism, etc. Or Antonioni’s films. The mood is so dire, and the people are so trapped that you can’t help but laugh.
I couldn’t open your link John but I thought so much of it was funny! I’ve been reading a lot of Tennessee Williams and a lot of his plays have this. It’s hilarious until it’s not, at all. I believe TW said something like – let them think they are in for a good laugh and then show them what’s really under the white clown make-up, what life is about.-
I think these two did that. When they are laughing about the couple opening their gifts is so funny! They know they are being assholes! When Pitt says even “We have to stop being assholes”. That’s funny too. Her being caught at the hole! The card game, yes black humor, but humor! And then they lower the boom……
Regina – ha! Yes, we discussed this above – I think I even called the movie a “hoot” in one of the essays I wrote. Maybe you need to have a dark sense of humor – or maybe it’s just the human comedy of what a MESS we all are, and how much we create our own messes. Like you said – Tennessee Williams! I re-watched Baby Doll yesterday and it’s so disturbing – and also so so funny! and the original one-act!! With the rape! And TW’s title for it was “27 Wagons Full of Cotton: A Mississippi Delta Comedy” or something like that. hahahaha He was so sick and twisted and beautiful. Maybe it’s a Southern sensibility or something.
Or like how Chekhov was horrified when he saw Stanislavsky’s first productions of his plays at the Moscow Art Theatre. Chekhov saw those plays as comedies. So often they are played without one damn laugh. That was the glory of the Mike Nichols production I saw in Central Park with La Streep. I mean, it played like a slapstick comedy. Those characters are so ridiculous.
I laughed out loud when she was busted at the hole, cringing on the floor in her black negligee.
The whole thing was absurd – even Brad Pitt’s line readings – the way he said the word “darling” … like he was dealing with a melodramatic child flouncing around in her tutu, sobbing.
and when they dress up to go out and fuck with the younger couple …
And I believe, as you may know, the Irish are also no slouches in this department.
Also, after they dress up and try to fuck with the younger couple, when they come back Pitt says something like, ‘that was tedious’ and she says ‘I hope it was worth it’ Something like that, then they kick off their shoes and rush to the hole, so stupid and ridiculous! And their disappointment when it backfires.
Even them driving off together looked silly, what the hell are these two up to next?!
I am not understanding why a lot of people did not find all of this funny!
hahaha I know!! It was so ABSURD. and so obvious what they were doing – escaping their problems – sitting by the wall, having dinner sitting on the floor. HA.
and I say – to my shame – that I totally related to what they were doing.
I, too, could have become so fascinated by something – someone – that if there was a hole in the wall I would find it difficult to resist. I might even ask to change rooms because it would be too distracting. I admit it.
Regina I am Irish hahahaha!
Sheila and Regina I totally agree with both of you on what you said above.One of the things that struck me about the film when I saw it was the humour and how funny it was.I wasn’t expecting that! Wonderful black humour.Do you folks think that it would be accurate to call this film a black comedy as well as a drama?
After yesterday’s unfortunate news of their split I suspected that the film might undergo a reevaluation and it appears to have begun.Peter Bradshaw penned the article in the link below about their film together and reevaluates “By The Sea” from his former mixed to negative opinion on the film.
Well, isn’t that convenient. I guess better late than never.
These people were blinded by their hostility towards celebrities so much so that they buried this film in its original release – a clear sign of the LACK of critical thinking – and now that it feels like a documentary to them, or a reality TV show – they’re interested. They re-think! They re-evaluate! Now it’s “autobiographical”!
They should have tried to view the film with clear eyes from the beginning. That’s their JOB.
The entire conversation around this split has enraged me so I’m staying out of it.
Hey Sheila.Happy New Year to you!
I know that I am constantly posting on this thread but I felt compelled to post again.I read your review of “By the Sea” and your subsequent piece on the film again only a few days ago and I have to say that they are eminently re-readable pieces.They are definitely amongst my favourite pieces written about the film.Thank you for giving us these.They are a gift.
Also,lately I have seen a number of people compare the film to the old giallo horror thriller just without the murder.What do you think of this?Would you have any insight into it?
I am looking forward to reading more of your wonderful writing in 2017.