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By the Sea
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by Jay Seaver

"Beautiful and meticulous, but you have to grab it rather than vice versa."
4 stars

"By the Sea" is the sort of movie I would have called boring as a younger man, and I wouldn't back away from the word here but for the craftsmanship being so impeccable. It's a film that often seems to encourage dissection rather than reaction, paradoxically demanding close attention despite not always doing much to seize it.

The sea is the Mediterranean, the time is the 1970s, when an American writer by the name of Roland (Brad Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) are checking into a hotel in the South of France for an extended stay. Roland intends to work on a new book, which seems to involve spending a great deal of time drinking in the cafe operated by Michel (Niels Arestrup) while Vanessa spends most of her time in the room or on the patio with her pills, not wanting to be there or anywhere, really, at least until discovering a peephole that allows her to spy on the newlywed couple next door (Mélanie Laurent & Melvil Poupaud).

It's a marvelously positioned void, really, placed just where the viewer will buy into Vanessa finding it while Lea and François do not, despite being large enough to afford more than a narrow line of sight. It probably makes things easier for cinematographer Christian Berger's camera, as well. The many shots through the hole cannot help but highlight the illicit nature or the glance - it's a perfect circle in the middle of a widescreen image - but there's also a flatness to those images that keeps what we're seeing from being far away. It's almost a TV screen meant to be watched, especially given how perfectly placed a mirror is to show what might otherwise be out of sight without overburdening the image. It feels meant for them (and us) to watch.

The cinematography is impressively precise in many other ways; Berger and Mrs. Pitt (who also wrote and directed) repeat a lot of shots, each of them beautiful, showing the same image at different parts of the day, ever-changing but, despite the changing colors, always the same underneath. A fisherman in a small boat often rows through these scene, and Vanessa comments on how he doesn't seem to catch much. It seems futile to her, a pattern that can't be broken. When the couple arrived at the hotel, they wordlessly rearranged furniture, perhaps to match their home; they, clearly have their own patterns to break out of.

They at least seem to be doing so, at least halfway through, and that's also intriguing to watch. The director is kind of ruthless with how she uses her particular beauty in this movie; always tremendously angular despite her curves, she and the make-up crew make Vanessa look withered, with sunken eyes and an otherwise worn appearance, one Mr. Pitt echoes, though not quite strongly. They actually seem to revitalize as the film goes on, and the actors do a nifty job of filling out the corners of their characters, finding ways to push them into new areas or reveal their history.

They've got some help on the acting front, too - although the Pitts are front and center through the entire movie, Larent & Poupaud are solid support. The pair are deliberately simple, but they both play well against whichever Pitt they are paired with or as part of a group. The biggest delight, though, is probably Niels Arestrup as Michel; it's a joy to watch him play off Brad Pitt, with Michel sincerely befriending Roland but also projecting that this is hardly the first tourist that he has seen on a precipice.

So with all that going for it, why not love "By the Sea" unreservedly? Perhaps because, for all that Angelina Jolie Pitt attends to every detail of her film, what's eventually revealed at the center is almost too exactly what one would expect, and while I'm not going to suggest that where the story goes isn't dramatic or deeply personal for the filmmaker after what she's been through in recent years, it becomes a great deal of ornamentation for an oft-told story. Maybe not every story needs a spark at the center, but the impacts here often feel muffled, and not in a way where the soft impact is a pleasant surprise when a blowup is expected.

Still, what "By the Sea" does well, it does very well indeed, and the audience interested in a movie that invites this sort of examination should be pleased by what it finds. It's not conventionally exciting, but it bears up to examination in a way many films don't.

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originally posted: 11/24/15 15:33:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.

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  13-Nov-2015 (R)
  DVD: 05-Jul-2016


  13-Nov-2015 (MA)
  DVD: 05-Jul-2016

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