In defense of ‘By the Sea’

Film and theater critics are not commonly known for kindness, but saying that a film about a couple’s trauma over the (spoiler alert) the loss of a child “has no reason for being” is beyond unkind. Set in the 1970s, an era when women’s liberation was still struggling to break the chains of the social role of wife and mother from the prison known as the stay-at-home wife suburban fantasy of the 1950s, “By the Sea” is, while indulgent, a sensitive at look at love, loss and grief among the well-to-do.

There is good reason for setting this film among the upper classes. The stereotype of the stay-at-home wife was not a luxury that the poor could well afford. And certainly wives of farmers and ranchers were stay-at-home, but they, too, were farmers and ranchers, working alongside their spouses and significant others. In Angelina Jolie Pitt’s “By the Sea,” we are asked to imagine the angst of a woman who has married well, but been unable to fulfill her duties as mother. Far worse, during the couple’s attempt to have children, the wife, Vanessa, played by Jolie Pitt, has suffered two miscarriages.

Miscarriages are not something that the Western world seems to handle well. While watching the movie, I thought of how my aunt in Osaka referred to her lost child, openly, when we first met. She had a small home shrine and made offerings and prayers daily. The child would have been college-age at the time I first met this aunt in Japan. Yet even after two decades and two living children (a daughter and a son), my aunt thought of this lost child.

This is something that Japan does well: Acknowledging the pain of loss that parents feel when a fetus dies. There is, I later learned, a specific temple in the Tokyo area for women who have spontaneously aborted fetuses or, in today’s modern society, had an abortion.  In the United States, however, there seems to be no social contract, no etiquette to handle the deaths of unborn children. The result is silence. But sometimes the grief needs to be acknowledged and spoken about.

“By the Sea” was written, directed and stars Angelina Jolie Pitt, who said prior to the screening at AFI FEST, that the movie isn’t meant to be commercial. It is meant to be artistic and deal with grief, love and loss. Jolie Pitt plays a former stage dancer. Brad Pitt plays a novelist. They are chic and sophisticated, even as Americans in a French-speaking country–they can and do speak French. Yet they have problems. She pops pills. He drinks too much. He is supposed to be writing, but he writes nothing. They do not rage at each other, but they have retreated away, living together in isolation. At first, we aren’t aware of the nature of this trauma.

What we do know, is that the incident, made her frigid. The audience then has to wonder what happened. Was she beaten by her husband in a drunken rage? Was she raped? We see nondescript flashes of her memories and feelings. In doing so, Jolie Pitt is equating her character’s miscarriages with physical trauma that a contemporary audience will readily accept.

Now on this beautiful retreat at an isolated luxury hotel, what is at stake is Vanessa and Roland’s marriage. While getting an alcoholic’s breakfast, Roland gets some patient advice from the local bar owner, local bartender (Niels Arestrup). The barkeep is friends with the owner of the hotel (Richard Bohringer).  Yet the bartender is a widower and is the voice of experience.

Into this couple’s periphery comes a young couple–just married and on their honeymoon. They,Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), are beautiful although the woman is a different type of beauty than Jolie Pitt and her Vanessa character. She is slender and less informal. She doesn’t not wear excessive makeup and false eyelashes as does glamour puss Vanessa. At first Vanessa hears the couple fornicating in the adjacent hotel room. Then, she finds a disconnected pipe that has been partially hidden beneath a small table. Vanessa begins to watch the couple in their attempts to get pregnant and eventually, her husband Roland joins her. This is where the R-rating comes in. Sexual acts are tastefully simulated and the European attitude toward naked female breasts is apparent. One expects that eventually snippets of these will end up on some website dedicated to the partial and full nudity of the well-known.

Vanessa and Roland have been married for 14 years. Once, surely, they were as hopeful and lustful as this couple. Their shared secret viewings of the newlyweds work as sexual therapy and they mend that part of their marriage, but then jealousy pushes  the well-endowed Vanessa to seduce François. As a writer, Jolie Pitt is looking for a happy ending, not Disney happy, but at least one filled with possibilities of a future together between Vanessa and Roland as well as the newlyweds.

Online, I have read suggestions that this film is a remake of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” That film began as a play and became a vehicle for Richard Burton and his-then wife Elizabeth Taylor. While “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” does deal with a married couple who play horrific games, at the center of the play is the dual disappointments: The wife hasn’t had children and the husband hasn’t become important in academia.  Failure hangs over this couple’s 1950s suburban dream. And they play make believe; they pretend they have a son.

In “By the Sea,” Vanessa and Roland were successful and hopeful in their youth. At the juncture where we first meet them, they seem on the road to becoming the 1970s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda. The husband’s novels still sell well enough for them to afford a luxurious hotel, but his own emotional angst over the death of his children and his wife’s withdrawal has stymied his creative abilities. He is not impotent in his work and his professional sphere as is the husband in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” In the end, Roland draws on the real grief and struggles of his wife as inspiration. The indications are upbeat for them and the novel their losses have inspired.

“By the Sea” could use better editing to sharpen the focus and improve the rhythm of the piece.  At times, the logic of Vanessa’s makeup also could have used some sharper delineation.  Taylor in “Virginia Woolf” tossed out the glamour and got emotionally ugly. Jolie Pitt as Vanessa, even with the mascara-running scene, does not. Yet like Jolie Pitt’s previous effort with cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption” and “No Country for Old Men“) on “Unbroken,” as director, Jolie Pitt displays great visual style with cinematographer Christian Berger (“The Notebook” and “The Piano Teacher“).  Jolie Pitt does give us a full appreciation for the Malta locale. Who wouldn’t want to go there for a cozy retreat after seeing this film. What “By the Sea” also does well is exposing the isolation of grief and the rhythms of speech in a troubled marriage.

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