On the Radio
by LAUREN RO
By the Sea
dir. Angelina Jolie Pitt
There is something destabilizing and even harrowing about witnessing a couple’s affection for one another when their language looks a lot different than yours. Trying to understand what they have (and in turn what you and yours don’t have) can become an obsession. So you observe them, their every saccharine gesture an affront to your own relationship, which seems loveless by comparison. You begin to see cracks that were never there in the first place; you pick fights with your partner who cannot even begin to fathom what has gotten into you. In short, you sabotage yourself. But really, it’s more complicated than that. What you’re doing is pushing at the limits of your shared love. To see if it will hold up to the crazy.
Which is exactly what Angelina Jolie Pitt’s character does in By the Sea, the film that she wrote, directed, and produced. In the film Angelina and her husband Brad play married couple Vanessa and Roland Bertrand, a former dancer and blocked writer, respectively. They shack up at a seaside resort in the South of France so that Roland can work on his book—and, ostensibly, so that the two of them can work on their marriage.
It’s the ’70s, which we know because Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg are on the radio — spewing their own brand of post-marital bliss (they never married) — and pussy bow blouses are the fashion of the day, but it hardly matters. The era functions as a symbol, its muted colors a reflection of the suppressed emotions waiting to erupt. That catharsis takes its time to arrive, and when the anticipated moment finally does, it’s a little anticlimactic.
Instead of writing, Roland boozes all day at the local bar, and Vanessa, paralyzed by an as-yet unnamed grief, lounges around the hotel room, popping pills and weeping mascara-tinged tears. The two are simply too self-pitying to stir up any drama, though Vanessa tries, by accusing Roland of wanting to fuck the pretty blonde that has moved in next door with her husband. He doesn’t take the bait. One day, he comes home early to discover Vanessa crouched on the floor, peeping through a hole in the wall leading into their neighbors’ room.
Vanessa has become obsessed with spying on the young, insatiable newlyweds since happening upon the portal a few days earlier. It’s the only thing that’ll get her out of bed — and now that she has no choice but to share her secret, into bed with Roland. Spying becomes a couple-building exercise, jumpstarting the healing process of their unhappy marriage — until, inevitably, their little game goes too far.
You watch By the Sea in the same way that Vanessa spies on the couple, looking for clues for — what exactly? It’s impossible to separate Angelina and Brad the in-real-life married couple from Vanessa and Roland the characters they play, and Jolie Pitt practically begs you to draw your own conclusions about the state of their marriage. And even if that is not on full display, her body is. Here are my orb-like eyes, done up in falsies and a thick cat-eye, the better for you to peer into, she seems to be saying. And here, my near-grotesque mouth: what would you like it to tell you? But most of all, it is her breasts, still beautiful, that throw you for the biggest loop.
By baring them on film she reminds you of her decision to have a preventative double mastectomy (and subsequent reconstruction) when she learned that had an 87 percent risk of developing breast cancer, a disease that killed her mother. Look who’s in control, she is saying.
At times, however, you wish she’d just lose it. Jolie Pitt has said in interviews that she made the film as a way to work through the grief of losing her mother. And that she would not have been able to make the film if she and Brad had problems remotely similar to the ones in the story.
In a way, then, By the Sea is a fantasy version of how a relationship implodes. They don’t go batshit crazy like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (who were married at the time) do in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and that’s kind of the point. Jolie Pitt wields control as director, but so does Vanessa. For all her theatrics (which aren’t all that theatrical), she’s the one running the show. Roland has his faults, but he’s patient and kind and gives her space (even sets her sunglasses right-side up so that they won’t get scratched). It’s precisely because of this safety net that she is able to push at the boundaries of their marriage. Even in the moment of crisis, you see that she doesn’t mean to hurt Roland, and he knows it. She only means to hurt herself.
What happens when you let an outsider meddle? Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise were the most famous couple in Hollywood when they shot Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut over 15 grueling months between 1996 and 1998. They played their marriage for art and were at the mercy of Kubrick, who was demanding and famously secretive, even preventing the two leads from comparing notes. There’s no denying that he was manipulative: there was no safe word with Kubrick, and everyone knows how that marriage ended.
Production for By the Sea was, on the other hand, a literal honeymoon, shot while the couple was on their actual honeymoon, right after their real-life wedding. Jolie Pitt goes easy on the two of them. There are scenes you wish would go over the edge; instead they teeter on the precipice of a full blow-out. It’s love and respect that holds them back. And if they were ever too close to the edge, all the director had to do was call “Cut!” forcing you to confront the questions: What is marriage? What is art?
Lauren Ro is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is her first appearance in these pages.
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