Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

I'd seen a trailer online for a relationship drama directed by Angelina Jolie that starred her and husband Brad Pitt. There was an arty laughably pretentious feel to it, specifically because of a shot of her crying with eye make-up smeared, staring off camera. There's no dialogue spoken in the clip. But it looked stylish.


The visual conception of a film often takes priority over all else for me. Somewhere I heard that when someone says a movie was shot very well, that typically is a way of saying it wasn't good. I disagree. Fashion photography is also a big inspiration for me. So, mostly I love this movie because it looks great and yet I did get something valuable out of it.

By the Sea (2015, Angelina Jolie Pitt) opens with a Seventies throwback Universal title card. Then there's the famous "Jane B." single sung by Jane Birkin with music by Serge Gainsbourg--this iconographic pop artifact not only sets the retro tone, but recalls how Jane Birkin was a model who had crossover success into singing and some acting and was married to Gainsbourg. Angelina Jolie Pitt bears obvious similarities.

It's France. We're on an exotic island. An old Vogue and rotary land line telephones tell us it's the Seventies.

By the Sea as a marriage drama rings authentic and doesn't have pacing problems. It's not concerned with conventional act structure however. It has other priorities. It feels like one of Ingmar Bergman's claustrophobic chamber pieces. Aside from the glamor and the Hollywood looks of the two leads, it's far from Hollywood.

VANESSA (Angelina) is a piece of shit sulking pillhead wife to ROLAND (Brad), an alcoholic novelist struggling with writer's block that doesn't exactly seem to be any better. They speak English but are fluent in French when shopping. They've been married fourteen years. The bulk of By the Sea is these two pretty people being ugly. But this film isn't just pretty, it's gorgeous. The whole thing feels like a haute couture fashion spread honeymoon fantasy. The canvas relies heavily on subtle champagne and pink hues throughout. Much of the colors are desaturated, like the emotions of the main characters. And the Gabriel Yared score fits the period and melancholy weight of the movie.

Angelina's performance is impressive. By the last half of the film she finds some scary troubled realistic grounding that sells the message of this exploration of time weary love. In real life, she's serious when she's playing crazy women, and does the action hero stuff to pay the bills. And most of the time she's in a designer slip lounging like Blanche in Kazan's Streetcar, although in a more expensive, designer version of that getup. Or she's naked sulking in the tub the rest of the time. And she's always wearing heavy eye makeup--even when she's just got out of the shower or waking up.

In By the Sea money is no object, but sex is everything.

By the Sea is in search of, and finds, a truthful depiction of what it is to lose something that meant so much to you and never get back. There's a couple that moves in next door to Vanessa and Roland that they eventually start spying on through a hole in the wall. Vanessa is drawn to them because they have that brand new marriage sparkle happiness that she and Roland have lost and will never regain. But, that's inevitable. Aging, familiarity, and other marriage complications are horrific here.

Along with the quick cuts, Vanessa's pain and longing for sex show up as flashes of abstract colors and textures that look like scientific slides and other assorted flashes that are effective and cool.

The scene where Roland comes home drunk to bed and kisses Vanessa after he's just vomited in the toilet won me over. What that scene expresses through its tone is the combination of disgust, anger, and violence that occurs within the intimate confines of a relationship at its worst. But that's important because it takes no imagination to just show the good stuff, which is also what the neighbor couple is there for--their happiness is the opposite of Vanessa and Roland's pain.

There is a reveal that the film builds toward. And while truthful, this feels casual overall. It all amounts to a discovery in a short getaway for them that we leave with and that finds a catharsis that is now out in the open, and while not gone, importantly portrayed. And in the best way, it leaves us with something we cannot forget through mapping a complex emotional reality.

--Dregs

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