Set during the 1970s in a quiet French seaside town, By The Sea tells the story of a married couple undergoing an apparent crisis.
The film opens as Roland (Brad Pitt), an American writer and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt), a former dancer, travel through the French countryside and arrive at a seaside town. Vanessa, impeccably dressed for the small town, arrives at the hotel with plenty of baggage, both figuratively and literally. The couple move in sync as they unpack their belongings and set up their life in the hotel room, hinting to the audience that this is something they have done many times before.
Written, directed and produced by Academy Award winner Jolie Pitt, By the Sea explores timeless themes that accompany a life fully lived - loss and grief - and our unconquerable ability to repair relationships and recover from loss. The film is loosely based on the life of Jolie’s mother Marcheline Betrand, who passed away after battling cancer. In an interview with Vogue Australia, Jolie Pitt opens up about the film’s influence, “... the specific grief came from the woman I was closest to, seeing her slip away, her body fail her”.
Roland is a burnt out writer and a drunk that spends his days at the local bar where he befriends an old man; Vanessa is severely depressed and spends her days wallowing in bed. It is clear the wealthy couple carry a heavy burden. They reconcile over their mutual curiosity in the young, newlywed couple that moves into the room next door, as they find a peephole in the adjoining wall.
The film has an eerie and mysterious mood which lets the audience know that something haunts the couples past. Jolie Pitt’s character is self-pitying and at times childish as she faces issues that many women face.
In its style, and its treatment of themes of the human experience, By the Sea is inspired by European cinema and theatre of the 1960s and 1970s. As can be expected of a self-written, self-directed film, the acting between the real-life married couple is at times cringe-worthy. Beautiful sea vistas, glamorous 1970s costumes and retro additions like Roland’s typewriter, Vanessa’s oversized designer sunglasses, stylish titfer and the couples convertible evokes interest and adds a touch of glamour to the lacking narrative.
By The Sea is ultimately a vanity project and while the film is hard love, it is tempting to uncover whether the acting is a portrayal of the couples real-life relationship.
Words: Frances van Eeden