It’s a term that’s thrown around quite frequently, used to describe various celebrity vehicles even back to the heyday of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, or Barbra Streisand, or Kevin Costner, or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, or that time Will and Jaden Smith played father and son… twice.
But, nobody really finds much to say about the majority of those films beyond their existence as films that star celebrities that otherwise feel “empty” to those in the mood for judging. That’s always been a common detractor for many films: it’s never comfortable sitting through a movie that features unlikeable characters. Nobody likes to see a film where they must endure a tabloid-overloaded celebrity or two doing a film that probably otherwise wouldn’t have been made. To quote Serving Cinema’s Joey Nolfi: “With stars like Jolie, critics assume they already know so much about her without knowing much at all, really.” So, when she’s directing a film about a broken marriage with her husband, Brad Pitt, it’s as if Jolie has set herself up for disastrous response – a lot of which started around message boards before the film was even released. But, if one decides to watch By the Sea, they see that Jolie was thoroughly prepared for this criticism, and that the film actually constructs its emotional core from this very concept. It’s aware of it.
It’s not easy making a film about “empty” people. It’s even harder to make one within the Hollywood machine. It’s a niche club, and it’s not very accessible to many who need even a little bit of exposition in their Oscar-aimed fare. By the Sea sees Jolie and her husband playing a spoiled, wealthy American couple staying in a French hotel. He’s a writer, she’s a former dancer. Where their money comes from is clear: they were born into wealth. And likewise, where the money of a younger, happier newlywed couple next door (Melanie Lauent and Melvil Poupaud) is hinted by the same means – Poupaud making brief note that the hotel has become his home.
It’s the 1970s, and it’s the dawning of the “hedonist age”, where money wasn’t a necessity for young people, and suffrage from knowing where exactly one’s relevance or “place” comes into play is unclear. It’s like a prologue to the 80s-set novels of Bret Easton Ellis, where it didn’t matter if you were a Hollywood star or not, but depression under the monetary boom is plaguing those without fame. By the Sea can be labeled an empty film and that its barebones story is melodramatic, but that’s a discredit to much of the film’s brave territory (a Hitchcockian subplot involving a peephole, for example) and the understanding that it’s a film that has a lot to say about two empty people. That Jolie herself is one born into a money-hungry industry and eventually founded a career through nepotism is an aspect that goes morphs By the Sea into some harshly personal places. Let’s look at Jolie’s inspirations within the film. Outside of already mentioning Alfred Hitchcock as one, there’s also a bit of Michelangelo Antonioni in here. The way Jolie frames her own character within the landscapes of the hotel by the ocean, or the way she lay her head back over a patterned chaise, feels akin to the way Antonioni framed his women: appropriate depression within beauty.
Whereas Antonioni can remain with clean hands because he threw his male-gaze onto the impeccable physical features of Monica Vitti in L’Avventura, Jolie faces criticism for being her own director. But it’s fitting, of course, that her character reads Vogue magazine within the first ten minutes of the movie–and even moreso that her character seems to feel absolutely no connection to the beauty of Gozo around her that she finds solace in constantly changing her clothing or layering mascara around her eyes to meet up to a standard that has more than likely been driven into her. It’s almost cathartic that Jolie, a celebrity known for her image, would shamelessly film herself as a figure of physical beauty in the same way Antonioni would Vitti. It’s not a male-gaze anymore, but something that explores the artificiality in that sexualized view (and even has Serge Gainsbourg on the soundtrack).
After her character, Vanessa takes a plunge into the Mediterranean and returns to her hotel drenched, Jolie applies straight-faced conviction to a line: “now my outsides feel like my insides”. It’s a moment of camp in a hyper-stylized presentation of otherwise eventless events where beauty is shaded quite like Vanessa’s eyes are caked in eyeshadow. That the very same scene has Jolie break-the-fourth-wall and look directly into the camera while her husband holds her sets into motion a film operating in an influenced, but cheeky and self-aware, tone.
Which brings up Jolie’s Godardian moments. By the Sea isn’t exceptionally into the politics of cinema when it comes to the melodramatics of plot, but its visual flourishes and technique present it as something with ideas that go far beyond what face-value seems to suggest.
There’s a scene where Vanessa is invited to a card game with the girl next door (Laurent), and even after holding spite toward her, Vanessa agrees to it and blankly shares a few rounds with her. The scene starts off quite conventional, but then the viewer starts to realize dialogue isn’t matching lips, that the editing is scatterbrained and not entirely sure of what chronology is. It’s a moment (of many here) that Jolie operates from the mind of a truly cinematic storyteller, whereas the language of cinema and its capabilities explore the mindset of a character. In a day where many Hollywood films rely on expositional dialogue, she takes a banal moment between two people and splices the sequence in a way to where we feel Vanessa’s disorientation. We also experience, through quick splicing of frames throughout the film, Vanessa’s sexual frustration and turmoil thereof. Flames, skin, bursting frames of light. It’s not necessarily subtle, but that’s because Vanessa–in her Antonionian poses and literal manipulation–isn’t a person with it. Quiet, but devastatingly growing into a one-dimensional monster due to very complicated means. Brad Pitt’s character is less over-exposed, as his turmoil and conflict is an effect of his wife’s actions, but he’s still a quiet, reserved person in pain. We know that his writing defines him, just as Vanessa’s makeup defines her. But we also come to learn that he’s got that, and Vanessa has abandoned any artistic outlet she is granted.
“My father’s love was always strong, and my mother’s glamour lives on and on. But still inside, I felt alone, for reasons unknown to me.”
These are lyrics from Lana Del Rey’s track “Old Money”, and while I’d be keen to keep any references to Del Rey out of any of my film analyses, I can’t ignore when I learn Jolie is a fan of Del Rey’s music. Jolie, specifically, hand-picked her for the main song of Maleficent in 2013, and both women were “born into money”. Likewise, By the Sea shares a lot of similar ideas as the discography of Lana Del Rey. The artificiality of beauty and glamour, and the illusion that money equates happiness. In many ways, criticism placed on both women were because of their class backgrounds, and, likewise, they’re both scrutinized for artistically expressing depression and loneliness within a world that most envy and work hard for: “The American Dream”. On Del Rey’s latest album, Honeymoon, there’s a song called “God Knows I Tried,” where the artist writes:
“I put on that ‘Hotel California’ and dance around like I’m insane – because I feel free when I see no one, and nobody knows my name.”
It’s kind of a thematic summary of By the Sea, ironically – when Pitt’s character asks his wife “Do you want to be unknown?” and she concurs that it’s something she wants more than anything. Not only does this lyric plug into a scene late in the film where Vanessa loses herself into violent, demonic dancing during a slow dance with her husband, but for a character that stays to herself for the duration of the film and seems the definition of antisocial, it’s too difficult not to look into the metaphorical meaning in Jolie’s own words within the film when she claims this as something she wants. Adding spirituality to it where Vanessa holds hope for God to save her, but also holds disdain for her savior’s lack of divine intervention; not unlike Del Rey’s own bipolar expressions of the matter within her work. With Vanessa’s constant feeling of being scrutinized, demeaned, betrayed, and objectified with gray-area reasons that are both warranted and unjustified – it makes for a rarely seen three-dimensional and strong female character.
The major subplot within By the Sea involves both Vanessa and her husband playing voyeur to the lives of the younger couple in the room next door. Through a peephole in the wall (always framed and staged in the same static take from their points-of-view), they play privy and even enjoy a demented connection with one another with their violative acts. But it’s an act where they’re both, maybe unconsciously, looking back at a time they once had, or maybe even seeing a spark in the newlyweds that they themselves may have never had. (Again, I can’t praise Jolie’s comfort with ambiguity enough.) But it’s an action and they share it, and they’re not chewing one another’s faces off – and the direction it goes is unbearable when the differing intents of both parties are fully understood; escalating into one of the most tragic and draining sex scenes in recent memory. “I love you,” Pitt pleads to his wife. “Tell me you love me, too”. And not once through the entire film’s runtime does she say it back.
To deny the existence of self-loathing and “emptiness” from some who withhold these types of lifestyles is to turn a blind eye to the kind of mental repercussions that can come forth from it. To criticize such things as an act of “vanity” or to label it as whining about a life that isn’t “that tough” is to ignore the self-absorption in such a critique; an almost hypocritical stance that is understandable, but unreasonable. When it’s the final moment of Vanessa sitting on her room’s balcony and watching a fisherman return from his trip, she’s still as beautiful and dolled-up as always, but she’s heightened in her fragility; her self-loathing. “Am I a bad person?” she asks. And her husband doesn’t lie. “Sometimes,” he tells her. But, he still loves her.
I think where By the Sea impresses me most is that it plays out like it’s a conventional story, and in many aspects, it embraces the conventionality of it (Pitt demands his wife to “hurt him” in one of their many arguments) and also the melodramatics of character motive (the revelation is, at first, eye-rolling until you look back on all the events in the film leading up to it), but it’s through Jolie’s influences and design of it all–her embracing silence, and her cheeky and meta-fragmenting of all these events–that layer the proceedings in a mature, flawed lens.
Names like Antonioni, Hitchcock, Godard, and maybe even Sirk could be used in describing the film’s influence, but By the Sea taps into something deeper and less stylized. It’s about two empty, pessimistic people, but there’s that elderly couple in the café holding hands, there are the newlyweds next door who learn to forgive one another, there’s the bartender with memories of a love lost, and there’s Jolie’s cinematic notion that the world isn’t as destructive as the people who have tragically made themselves a destructor. There’s nothing pessimistic (or empty) about that. There’s no vanity in seeing the world in such a way.