By the Sea: Tie Me Down, by Scott Nye
A man and woman drive up and down the hills of Malta. The camera tracks them so closely that the ride (especially from the front of the theater, where I sat) feels more like a roller coaster than a Sunday drive. They check into a small hotel – he, Roland, speaks pretty good French; she, Vanessa, either doesn’t, or doesn’t care to. They’re played by two of the world’s biggest movie stars, and they know it. They’re lit gorgeously, framed to emphasize their beauty, and carry themselves with the confidence of never having to second-guess anything. What better pleasures could a movie starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie offer? But By the Sea, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s third film as director, is as much about what’s under the surfaces as what’s on top of them.
Lately, Roland and Vanessa have had quite a lot to doubt. We don’t find out until late in the film the true impetus of their unhappiness, but their problems are not so easily reduced. She used to be a dancer, until, as she bluntly states, “she got old.” He’s had some success as a writer, but not recently enough for his liking. They meet a young couple (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) taking a late honeymoon. Vanessa finds a hole in their adjoining wall, and spends good portions of her day watching them tumble about in bed. Roland spends his days drinking and avoiding the work that is the ostensible purpose of the trip.
He’s trying. He’s really, really trying to find the romance they once shared. She’s spikier, more distant, more often refusing even modest advances like an embrace. But that doesn’t mean he’s faultless. The way he constantly insists on their intimacy becomes oppressive, even condescending and suffocating. She has no room to grow and reconnect with him on her own terms. Her walks aren’t helping. Her spying is only fueling her inadequacy. We get glimmers of who they were, and want to be – he’ll make a joke, and she’ll resist a smile. Long stretches of the film go by in which very little “happens.” This space is essential to understanding the rift between them. He stumbles around drunkenly, pathetically, but she doesn’t rush to help him either. “Are you trying to ruin us?” he asks repeatedly. She has no answer. She probably doesn’t know herself.
He discovers the peephole, too. Now they have something to share, a secret fetish. As director, Jolie establishes our perspective of the honeymooners lives’ strictly through Vanessa’s (the peephole remains our only view of the room), filtering every interaction through her and Roland. They remain alluring, and vulnerable. Vanessa and Roland exploit their privilege, exploit the effect their beauty has on other people. “Let’s get them drunk and see how they are,” he suggests. The lives of others are just a game to them. In one of his conversations with the local barkeep (Niels Arestrup), Roland reflects on the love he and his wife shared, the kind “you couldn’t even imagine.” He loves this simple man, but can’t stop thinking of him as a simple man, which, in turn, makes himself the superior man. Pitt’s an actor who used to rely on strongly-stated physicality to really sink his teeth into a role, but since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Moneyball, his best asset has been his comfort in his own skin. To watch an actor simply be on camera is a marvelous thing.
The ease is perhaps heightened by acting alongside his wife, who gives quite a good performance as well. Though typically quite a compelling presence, it’s been quite a few years since Jolie has taken on a role that requires her to be this resourceful. It’s not enough to just be beautiful. She has to create a physicality that plays with the space around her, an emotive range that’s not exaggerated while still being commanding, and a capacity to communicate whatever’s underneath her wall of silence. That the final revelation towards the end of the film is so clearly telegraphed is not the weakness many are making it out to be, but a testament to her performance. It’s not a gimmicky “twist” ending any more than the revelation that concludes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. People tend to avoid discussing upsetting subjects. It’s all there in her performance, though – the grief, the guilt, the shame. That’s all you need.
There’s nothing vain about By the Sea. It’s a daring, confrontational, and vulnerable piece of work that engages with the collective want to see these two people, twisting and contorting the parasitic way people can live off of each other. It’s gorgeously – but more importantly, intelligently – shot, accentuating the smallness of individuals, and the insufficient amounts of themselves they sometimes give to one another (a shot of Vanessa entering the bathroom, tossing off her towel just as she gets out of sight of Roland, teasing both him and us, is particularly memorable). It twists eroticism into a pleasure and a sickness, a binding force that’s nevertheless corrosive when explored recklessly. In an age of cinema so bereft of melodrama, I would have been content with much less. Fortunately, Jolie was not.