By the Sea (2015)

Intimate story of crumbling relationship, directed by Angelina Jolie (Pitt), is pure self-indulgence for director, not the viewer.

By the SeaUSA
2*

Director:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Screenwriter:
Angelina Jolie Pitt

Director of Photography:
Christian Berger

Running time: 125 minutes

Do you remember the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Second World War–set Inglourious Basterds in which U.S. Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, attends a film premiere in Nazi-occupied Paris and pretends to be an Italian? “Bahn-dzhohr-no”, he says, oblivious to the deep Southern accent that escapes his lips and thus turning an otherwise tense moment into comedic gold.

By the Sea, a film set in the 1970s on the French Riviera and directed by Pitt’s wife, Angelina Jolie (who on this production is credited as Angelina Jolie Pitt), poses a similar issue for the actor, but this time his accent is not played for laughs, and that is a big problem. The words leave the mouth of his character, Roland, without a problem, and there is no hint of the accent he played up in Tarantino’s film, but his inarticulate speech is near incomprehensible to the French-speaking viewer. And yet, his French interlocutor, a bar owner named Marcel (Niels Arestrup), does not bat an eye. Perhaps he is used to his clients mumbling.

The rest of the film is also a mess. Angelina Jolie Pitt has never pouted more in any of her roles, and that is saying something. She stars as Vanessa, a former dancer and Roland’s wife of 14 years, who spends all of her time in their hotel room, motionless on the bed, with a tear slowly rolling down her check, or looking out onto the cove in front of the villa-esque hotel, or draped over the furniture, or catching some sun on the balcony while sporting obscenely big sunglasses.

The story is way too small for the two-hours-plus running time: Having recently been through a devastating tragedy that the film acknowledges in one of the first scenes and then makes unnecessarily explicit nearly two hours later, the couple temporarily relocates to the South of France so that Roland, a novelist, can write his next big work. No prizes for those who can guess the title in advance. But he spends most of his time getting drunk at Chez Marcel while a depressed and heavily medicated Vanessa fades into the wallpaper.

Luckily for Vanessa, she discovers a peephole in their wall and starts spying on the newlyweds next door, living vicariously through their sexual gymnastics as she misses out on such intimacy in her own life. As time passes, Roland joins her, and they do grow closer, although the painful episode in their lives remains unaddressed until it is almost too late.

The images are absolutely stunning, and so is Jolie Pitt’s wardrobe, but the richness of the physical exteriors cannot make up for the sad emotional interiors that never get properly fleshed out. Instead, Jolie Pitt piles on the visuals, with some striking editing (including a magnificent cut from the couple in bed at night to Roland alone in bed in the morning) and very brief but repetitive and ultimately ludicrous inserts of indefinable liquids that supposedly give a sense of Vanessa’s state of mind.

One of the few good moments occurs almost as an afterthought. While the main contrast is between Roland and Vanessa on the one side and their neighbours, the French couple, on the other, Roland also meets up with an elderly couple on a bench at the water’s edge one day. The conversation is very short, but the affection and understanding these two people have for each other are immediately obvious.

We catch a glimpse of them again later at the bar, where they are holding hands and talking like the good friends they continue to be after decades of marriage. The loquacious but sensitive Marcel also tells Roland how much he misses his wife who recently passed away, and all of these stories serve to isolate Roland in a bubble of melancholia that he resists by ordering drink after drink.

At the heart of the story, however, is the stasis and the decay of Roland and Vanessa’s relationship. Early on, the camera blatantly tells us where the hurt lies, when Vanessa goes grocery shopping and sees a child, whose innocent face we see in close-up … twice. Unfortunately, the tension fades into the background as neither Roland nor Vanessa wants to address the nagging strain on their marriage, and no one ever raises their voice until very late in the final act. Vanessa starts to play a game she does not understand, Roland becomes jealous, and they try to grow closer again by watching a kind of porn: the French couple’s raunchy workouts.

By the Sea is certainly not as bad as Guy Ritchie’s laughable Swept Away, but it is far off the mark. Drowning in stylistic flamboyance and with a narrative that is spread very thin, the film shows that its director, as she made clear with Unbroken, has enormous talent for visual showiness but lacks the skills to keep us interested when the story falls short of its extended running time.

Amour (2012)

This film about death is all about hanging on to one’s better half and reminds us what intimate cinema is capable of.

AmourFrance
4.5*

Director:
Michael Haneke
Screenwriter:
Michael Haneke
Director of Photography:
Darius Khondji

Running time: 127 minutes

For most of Amour, the viewer feels absolutely confident she is in the presence of greatness. This is what a film looks like that takes its subject seriously and tries to present it in all its complexity through small moments that all have a very human dimension to them. The human dimension is born out of an intimacy that depends on the chemistry between and very likely also the life experience of the lead actors. And yet, these moments are immediately accessible to those of us who have only had a taste of the life depicted onscreen.

Jean-Louis Trintignant basically came out of retirement to take the role of the octogenarian Georges, whose wife, Anne, played by Emmanuelle Riva, has had a stroke but refuses to be hospitalised. They are both former music teachers and live in a comfortable apartment in the middle of Paris. In one of their first conversations, after attending a music concert, they speak passionately and with erudition about the music they heard.

At first, Georges cares for her and helps her to get into her wheelchair. But gradually her condition worsens, until she has another stroke and becomes nearly incapacitated.

How does a lifelong partner deal with this sudden change? The question is made all the more urgent and unnerving by Haneke’s sudden acceleration of the timeline in unannounced fashion. There are no supertitles to indicate the passage of time: Again and again, Anne’s condition has suddenly deteriorated again, and we are shocked every single time we become aware how much farther down the slope of mortality she has slid once more, and that there is no way back up.

Haneke shoots many of his scenes in single takes and all but eschews the use of close-ups. The film’s characters are thoroughly respected, with two small exceptions. In one of the film’s first scenes, at the breakfast table in the kitchen, at the moment when we realise what will be the beginning of the end, Haneke is a little too rough in his treatment of Anne. The moment itself, the first revelation that something is wrong (we later learn something was obstructing her carotid artery, causing her to switch off for a moment), is perfectly controlled, balanced between tenderness and tension, but the scene could have done without a final pouring of the tea into the saucer rather than the cup — something that emphasises without a shadow of a doubt that things will soon go downhill very quickly.

There is also the matter of a character not properly developed, only to serve as a vessel to elicit our emotion for Anne and her plight: the second nurse who comes to take care of her. She quickly shows her true colours as an arrogant uncaring little snip; her brief appearance and a particularly hurtful exchange with Georges feels like a typical Haneke moment in which evil is revealed to be embedded in society, and he obviously enjoys pushing the knife just that little bit more into our stomachs, though frankly this was quite unnecessary. His subject matter is already powerful enough.

But the film is magnificent. It is a restrained piece of work that is set almost entirely inside the old couple’s flat and unwinds at Haneke’s leisurely pace inside scenes but frighteningly quickly from one scene to the next. Despite a feeling the film may at times be slightly jumpy, there is no disputing that it is consistently effective.

Amour does not venture into the generalities of the care of the elderly, but it does address a number of pertinent issues, including the unspoken pity the world has for this kind of situation, a pity that Haneke himself was probably banking on while making this film.

But there is a complete lack of cheap tricks to tug at our heart strings. Trintignant and Riva bring with them many decades of experience not only in acting but in living; their characters’ gentle interaction, their frustration with the limitations of old age and the steadfast determination to still have a say in their own lives despite the intervention of different kinds of unexpected forces on their lives make them both strong and fragile at the same time. This kind of complexity is what the cinema often lacks, and what Haneke, Trintignant and Riva have brought to the screen with care and commitment.

Only towards the end does Haneke’s evident fear of a straightforward conclusion or an easy explanation strain the experience a little, but it is a very minor flaw in an otherwise first-rate film about perseverance in love and coping with the inevitability of death

Amour is personal, intimate and, together with The White Ribbon, one of Haneke’s least intellectual and most accessible films to date.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.