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AFI Fest 2015: "By the Sea"

There was a definite buzz on the streets of Hollywood. The faux stars dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters were there, but so were many fans waiting for the appearance of Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt as part of the gala opening of AFI Fest Thursday night. They were presenting Jolie's new directorial venture, "By the Sea" which Jolie Pitt told the audiences in the main theater, as well as briefly at a second overrun theater where I was, that this movie wasn't meant to be a popular money-making venture. 

"This a piece of art for us, " Jolie Pitt explained before the film screening, adding that it is meant to "explore grief and love and loss."

"By the Sea" doesn't have the historical and emotional sweep of Jolie Pitt's 2014 effort, "Unbroken," nor the local tie-in (Louis Zamperini was born and raised in the Los Angeles area not far from where I presently live). The drama centers around an affluent American couple, Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) and Roland (Pitt), traveling in France (actually Malta) during the 1970s.

Roland is a writer. Vanessa is a former dancer from the stage. They've been married for 14 years. When the movie begins, Roland is driving a silver convertible on a narrow road on the side of pale cliffs to an isolated hotel on the edge of the sea. They are comfortable in this foreign land, addressing the local bartender (Niels Arestrup) in French. The barkeep is friends with the owner of the hotel (Richard Bohringer). The hotel owner mounts a bicycle, and leads this couple in their car to the hotel.

The hotel is stylish and the rooms large and airy. Roland and Vanessa speak politely to each other, but they live isolated lives. Roland is supposed to write, but would prefer to drink—sometimes for breakfast, but enough to cause comment in France where wines flows more easily before evening. The barkeep, a widower, gives Roland advice, and is patient, even when Roland is ugly drunk.

Bored and alone, Vanessa goes down a long trail of steps into the village to buy food from a colorful little store. Mostly she pops pills and watches other people—the man in the boat whom she can see from her balcony and the newly married couple, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), in the room next door. Vanessa discovers a disconnected pipe that provides her a peephole into the honeymooning couple's bedroom and she begins to watch the couple in their foreplay and carnal embraces. 

Vanessa and Roland are not sexually active and Vanessa has suffered a great tragedy that has left her frigid. Together, they begin a tentative secret, spying on the other couple as a sort of sex therapy. Then they make an acquaintance with the couple like spiders playing with flies. 

There are bare breasts providing the R-rating that might add to the pleasant scenery for some. The movie is awash in beige, cream and white with an occasional dash of yellow on Vanessa's hat or red in a piece of clothing or Roland's red Valentine typewriter. That sharply contrasts the explosion of color in a little market which seems to mean more when one finally learns the cause of Vanessa and Roland's grief.

The movie is beautiful to look at, as are both couples. Yet the beauty is part of the problem, especially in the case of Jolie Pitt. Certainly the eyes of the director/writer/star are compelling, but here they are made more Bambi-like. This is part of Vanessa's glamour as one scene shows her removing her false eyelashes. There's also a classic runny mascara scene. However, in between there are too many scenes where Vanessa seems to wake up with her false eyelashes over the smokey falseness of expert makeup. That slip-up seems to expose one facet of a larger problem: a critical eye. In "By the Sea," beauty and glamour are always present and the real ugliness of a destructive grief is made too gorgeous.

Other scenes rest too long and indulgently on the two stars' visages, beautiful although wearied from the secret tragedy. Tighter pacing and a better rhythm might have given "By the Sea" more emotional impact. Jolie Pitt, here working with cinematographer Christian Berger ("The Notebook" and "The Piano Teacher") and previously with Roger Deakins ("The Shawshank Redemption" and "No Country for Old Men") on "Unbroken," does express a great visual style. 

The audience at AFI Fest, a mix of fans and professionals, politely laughed at some scenes although the movie doesn't have any sequences that seem intentionally humorous. Jolie Pitt and Pitt also turned up at the gala after party at the Roosevelt Hotel. People armed with their cellphones waited for a glimpse of them from behind a wall of dark-suited security. With most people dressed in black or dark colors, Jolie Pitt glowed in her light-colored gown. The glamour of Hollywood flourishes at AFI Fest.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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