Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Marriage isn’t all sunshine, rainbows and champagne. It can also filled with struggle, jealousy and heartache. Cinema loves exploring the travails of married folk – and I, as an audience member, overindulge in these films. It’s marital discord that makes films such as SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, TWO FOR THE ROAD, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, EYES WIDE SHUT, and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF tick. However, on the flip side of that is marital bliss. Writer-director-star Angelina Jolie-Pitt spotlights the two alternating sides in BY THE SEA. Cutting, provocative, introspective and wickedly astute, the elegant art-house melodrama juxtaposes beauty with the ugliness of the institution.
Americans Roland and wife Vanessa (Brad Pitt and Jolie-Pitt) are looking to get away from it all, staying in a luxury hotel in a seaside hamlet on the Cote d’Azure. He’s a writer suffering from a crippling case of writer’s block and she’s a former dancer suffering from self-abnegation due to a mysterious trauma. Not many words are exchanged when the pair settle into their new digs, rearranging the furniture to suit their needs. He spends his days drinking at the small café run by widower Michel (Niels Arestrup) and she spends her days popping pills and lounging in wispy nightgowns. They appear to be growing apart, treating each other monstrously, completely blinded to the beauty surrounding them. That is until newlyweds François (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Mélanie Laurent) arrive, stirring up deep seated feelings – both helpful and hurtful – inside Roland and Vanessa.
Maybe it’s the freewheelin’ use of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s songs, or Christian Berger’s sparkling and warm cinematography, or the glamorous 70’s wardrobes, hair and makeup, or the stunning locale of Malta (which stands in for the French Riviera), but I fell in love at first sight – similar to how real love affairs begin. Parallels can be drawn from the three act structure to the couple’s relationship. There’s also an understated sense of hope coursing through the picture – in the way Roland tidies her sunglasses, as if he’s the fixer in the relationship. Metaphors like the fruitless fisherman Vanessa watches are subtle, representing a ceaseless fight against the tide and also hope there’s a reward to come. Though we are forced to wade through the drudgery of a few self-indulgent shots of the characters wracked with ennui, it’s all deeply engrossing as Jolie-Pitt constantly utilizes the widescreen format perfectly. Thematic elements like solitude and loneliness come through in the visuals. Jealousy, voyeurism, obsession and self-sabotage also reverberate throughout the narrative.
BY THE SEA is one of the more honest films you’ll see about marriage. It may not be reflective of everyone’s marital disenchantments (because who could ever be unhappy in that location?!), but it understands the ebbs and flows of the changing tide of love within a marriage. And, just like marriage, it can be brutal and punishing.
BY THE SEA opens on November 13.