"She's a camp event and a celebrity and that's all and the last thing anybody needs is to make a giant bomb with her that any fool could see coming." —Scott Rudin, lover of many women.
Akhmatova has a great poem, one of her Northern Elegies, which starts like this:
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.I am a substitute. My life has flowedAnd I do not recognize my shores.
The poet uses the power of imagination to do a mild perversion of Proust’s Madeleine. Or not Proust, a realization of Heisenberg. To conjure an entire dead-cat life, another conditional mood persona, the ahistoric Akhmatova, who would have been.
If this By the Sea, with all its creaky dollhouse dust, had been made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder or by Todd Haynes I bet you all $10 everybody (and Scott Rudin in particular) would be creaming their jeans. But movie stars are pretty much never allowed to be clever or ironic. Or deep. Movie stars are earnest, aren’t they? But beware of a holy whore, dudes!
Nowadays, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s star persona has taken a flurry of complicated turns. The erotic object who directs movies and has over the last 15 years become a sort of postmodern, archmaternal Mother Teresa for tiny sufferers everywhere. But less Albanian. An eternal tabloid figure, as Rudin rudely points out. But also a particular woman, who through the wonders of boutique surgery, has lived out Lady Macbeth’s liberationist desire and call to the Spirits to “unsex me here...” If anyone should be a living advertisement for Haraway’s utopian cyborgiad, it would be A. Jolie-Pitt. She’s unusual, at the very least.
As everyone knows by now, By The Sea is a deeply personal project for Jolie Pitt. It is the story of a glamorous couple of some vague celebrity whose marriage is falling apart on the sunny coast of France. It is the early 1970s. The husband, Roland (Brad Pitt), is a once fashionable writer who has arrived with his valium-addicted wife, Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), once a star dancer, to work on his latest novel. It is quickly clear that Roland is not that interested in working, and she is suffering intensely from some sort of unknown crisis. They are both avoiding something of bleak consequence.
But just as in Akhmatova’s poem, Jolie Pitt, like any great (or even any mediocre) actor, is playing to a lost version of herself. One with an aimless, unfilled life. A fantasy of her life without caring and care, without meaning. Without power. And grieving and haunted by possibility. A woman uneasy, a suicide in progress. But also: a woman plotting somehow to destroy her husband’s complacency and pathetic solicitude, and somehow to “save” them both. It’s as if Jolie Pitt’s character, Vanessa, is dreaming she is the director. And the director is dreaming too, with a subtle vengeance.
Early on, there is a scene where Vanessa goes shopping at some soundstage bodega. In this scene, there is a cutaway to a little girl. Vanessa is held spellbound by the child. Aha! This is the lack, the psychological key. But this is a red herring shot. The first of many.
There are many arch exchanges that signal the on-the-rockiness of the couple, but this is the important one. He is heading off to the bar. She: “Are you off to find inspiration...?” He: (gesturing offhandedly to her) “I have my inspiration.” Exit him. Funny stuff. Vaguely English-ish. Pinteresque. How does one tell when a movie cliché is flung carelessly, and when it is used vehemently? It’s hard enough to tell in commercial cinema, but how do you send up art movies? Woody Allen had tried it, fatally so, in Stardust Memories. It’s a problem worthy of a Ruiz, a Soderbergh, or a Bresson. But the “problem” of cliché is actually the substance of this movie. When a cliché is thoughtless, it marches a movie towards fixity, towards allegory. What results seems “inevitable.” But a cliché can also be used expressively, to destabilize, to set meaning wild. It’s a paradox. The semantic poverties of cliché (stacked in certain ways) can actually take you somewhere you have never been.
By the way, before they take away my cybercritic card forever, there are a half-million toneless and postmodern nails-on-the-chalkboard awfulnesses about this movie. The Serge Gainsbourg songs are done by a Tijuana rental unit. It feels like Audrey Hepburn’s pastel 1950s most of the time. Everything is telegraphed in a way that seems fatally incompetent. There is no pubic hair. There are no interesting drugs. Vanessa’s hair is phantasmagorically appalling in a funny giallo sort of way. There are far too many scenes of fake writing and fake drinking à la Papa Hemingway. Scenes with extras that feel like somebody forgot to shout action at them—making the puppets of Last Year at Marienbad seem vibrant in comparison. But none of that matters, because this is not a realistic movie. It is a deep cover Twilight Zone episode.
So we are either looking at a fascinatingly bad art movie or a knowing parody of one. Is this direction or misdirection? Well, I’m going to say it’s misdirection. Vanessa, rather than being the inert, softly cooing muse, starts to enact things that baffle the husband—as if his wife had gone insane, or had become possessed by the ghost of some relative. She becomes, more than a person, a pure spectacle. It is a little irritating that he seems to be the last to understand, but what really matters is that he is fascinated by this new woman. But just because the frame is performative and artificial, it never means that these “actings” are meant as parodies of emotions.
She and the husband begin to voyeurize the young honeymooning couple next door. They are beautiful and insipid. We think there will be trouble. But this too is a red herring. It’s like the film keeps breaking off in mid-sentence. It has that energy. A good part of how this is achieved is through weird audio collages that blur the action and move it ahead but not in any rational way. It’s just painterly, essayistic, and intuitive.
Then, the movie builds to a moment of supposed re-connection, like in Voyage to Italy, where the couple-monster has been terrorized into life again. The husband impulsively takes her to dinner, and then he forces her to dance with him, but just as we think the thing is done, she breaks away to dance madly, alone, while he stares idiotically, not understanding. This is a fantastic scene. Just enough to keep peeling at her.
With the neighbors, Vanessa has been plotting all along to destroy this spectacle or happiness, or to reveal it as just a temporary sham (in this, she shares a fundamental nihilism at her core that binds her to her husband). But because this is a melodrama, she is to be prevented.
There is yet another layer of mystery to her suffering.Which is then explained away in the most tedious, stupid, and literal way. It turns out she perhaps wanted a baby. What? Is that all? It is too easy. A Macguffin. But there is a nagging feeling. This weave of grief has been for a submerged, closeted self trying to out itself. Not out from some empty sociological closet, but a rich, metaphysical closet. To the extent that Vanessa is conscious of her need for performance, she also gives herself out to be consumed. Which is really why the film finally and profoundly reminds me of Fassbinder. Not just in his baroque self-crafted prisons of the self. Fassbinder was an actor too. He always said that his eternal subject was that deep feeling was another exploitable commodity ready to be feasted on by all the wolves, including those in the audience. It was always important to remind the audience of their own carnivorous complicity in the bloodthirsty process of art.
What does it mean (I wonder, so you don’t need to), when the Amazon Mother of all Amazon Mothers screams out: “I’m barren!” It probably doesn’t mean that she can’t have “babies,” right? More likely it means that, now jolted out of numbness by her ethical choice to destroy, the curtain has fallen, and the performance is over. But it was never “just” a performance. It was born out of some inner necessity, but she has no more “material” to provide. And suddenly, through a magically sudden alchemical process – Roland’s novel is finished. The husband, unexplainably fertile for the both of them, has given birth to “their” story. This lady Macbeth of Muses has produced it, midwived it. And Roland still does not realize it.
The movie is another romantic celebratory ode to codependency, like so many other love stories. In that limited way it is like Product. But the way it isn’t like Product is that it puts the mechanism of the mirror of power on display. It seems to be a gothic fairytale about the Power of Partnership. But it’s a pro-partnership movie like Losey’s The Servant is for the rights of man. The twist/reveal makes the mask of power essentially and eternally reversible. Power is fiction. Fiction is power. By The Sea also dares to ask why exactly the mirror should ever be gilded this particular way. So let’s see...what are the outstanding films about the frightening moral and sacrificial costs of delivering art—it’s a, uh, macho man field, usually. A brief sample: The Naked Spur, The Death of Maria Malibran, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, White Hunter, Black Heart, Pialat’s Van Gogh, Dangerous Game, and Saint Laurent. When we pay the right sort of attention, this movie belongs in that company.
Ugh, these multiple facets. How confusing of the director! So what else: maybe a movie about how directors mindfuck actors into “performance”...? Or a movie about how you smuggle your subaltern agenda through and into weaker vessels. Translation: how it works with women and power in Hollywood. Ah yes! Coincidentally, the subject of the moment. A Zeitgeist picture.
But all this would have to take place in some parallel universe where Scott Rudin is the idiot and Angie is the genius. Not in this one.
The film starts and ends with Gainsbourg’s Jane B. Which is an interesting song where Birkin the muse, and the naked mistress, sings about herself as seen from outside, in a mass of banal police-blotter details. It is musical modernism. What is useful to the Great Man is incidental. But in real life, somewhere the woman continues beyond the muse, leaves and outlives him, and becomes an artist in her own right. The opening scene repeats. But this time the focus is on Vanessa. And her secret triumph. Jolie Pitt’s essay on marriage ends up here with a lovely, icily ironic touch.
At the very least, let’s praise how sharp and spiky the very end of the movie is. It’s a seemingly improvised explosive device. If you aren’t thinking ‘what the fuck just happened’ as you leave the theatre, check your pulse. You’re resting much too much. Underestimate this filmmaker at your own risk.
And another woman has usurpedThe place that ought to have been mine,And bears my rightful name,Leaving me a nickname, with which I’ve done,I like to think, all that was possible.But I, alas, won’t lie in my own grave.