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ARTHOUSE MELANCHOLY OF ANGELINA JOLIE'S BY THE SEA

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in BY THE SEA Year: 2015
Those who haven't yet experienced BY THE SEA are probably wondering, Is It Really That Bad: Well to give you a little taste before our big meal – the opening line, spoken in a dull manner by writer and director Angelina Jolie Pitt as a depressed wife, upon arriving in the French villa with her husband, is: "I smell fish."

Now try to imagine if there was no murder in Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW – it would be a character-study of a handicapped voyeur, which couldn't go far without an eventual plot: a theme's conveyor belt that motion pictures cannot do without. Shocking, though, is the bizarre fact Jolie's monotone melodrama is somewhat painfully intriguing, thanks especially to a knee-high peephole in the spacious hotel room harboring bitter, lived-in marrieds Angelina and real life spouse Brad Pitt for a two-hour run-time that can often seem quite eternal. And yet, this kind of existential arthouse purgatory could have been much longer – others of its kind, with far more experienced, celebrated directors behind the lens, have gone well over three hours, including another Pitt vehicle, Terrance Malick's self-indulgent saga TREE OF LIFE, which SEA is a fun and frolicking rodeo by comparison...

Jolie and the other fella in SEA
There's one highly effective quality right off the bat, which has been noted by every otherwise disparaging critic – the sea coast exterior landscape, strategically observed from the hotel room patio, glides out from a tree-dotted mountain into a heavenly oceanic milieu, as gorgeous as the disturbed leading lady who – as her husband makes like a writer's-blocked Hemingway in the downstairs bar, drinking – seems possessed with a lethargic combination of shame, guilt, doubt and hatred along with an obviously deep-felt and torturous problem she cannot speak of – in fact she doesn't say much at all save a few words here and there while hanging around, posing for a phantom camera, chain-smoking, popping pills and glancing into that convenient peephole where, on the other side, a slightly younger newlywed couple are making love or having bubbly conversations like... newlyweds...

Brad Pitt's jealous perspective is the picture above
It's all artistically shot, right down to the onlooker's P.O.V., showing the bottom half of the couple's busy bed as the top is revealed by a mirror. The earthy, skinny, stringy-long-blond-haired wife makes for an INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS mini-reunion in that film's genuine leading character, M√©lanie Laurent, who wins first prize for visually representing SEA's era, the 1970's, which, set in a minimalist French locale with funky-smooth music highlighted by a rendition of Chopin's Piano 'Prelude' with lyrics, doesn't have to try very hard. But, most likely, what's not in the film provides a logical answer for having a contained story about two couples in two hotel rooms take place within another decade: No one's staring into handheld phones or taking pictures with them. And when it comes down to it, these four eclectic human beings might as well be living on another planet... Other than the downstairs barroom, any other location distracts from a strange and claustrophobic tether, locked onto the hotel room where, during one scene, wine pours extra-loudly into a glass – in this kind of narcissistic labor-of-love, it feels like every single moment has to mean something, which can be either thought-provoking or related to Friedrich Nietzsche's idiom about poets beating around the bush by "muddying the waters." In that case, BY THE SEA is a swamp...

Brad and Niels speaking French, asking the inevitable arthouse question
And actually, there are five, not four, pivotal characters, counting sixty-something WAR HORSE French actor Niels Arestrup, resembling if Richard Harris looked more like son Jared with a touch of Rutger Hauer bringing the later-years Marlon Brando to mind – dogged by a "heavy" burden of tragedy, he provides more than wisdom to Pitt's perpetually buzzed, uninspired author. Actually, both the (relatively) young and old man give very natural, deadpan, world-weary performances: one was married to a woman he loved, who died a year earlier, and the other's wife, listless, hopeless and hanging about like a stunned giraffe on edgy, ineffective downers, refuses to touch him, or be touched...

Even in art films, ladies go shopping SEAGrade: C+
At least during the first half that, after a slow buildup, subliminally begs the most important question: What exactly's ailing this sullen goddess (a theater actress has-been of some kind)? In a cinematic fashion liken to psychological suspense, horror or drama films from, ironically, the 1970's ala LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and OPENING NIGHT... Jolie, unable to shake her proverbial demons, may go off at any given moment... or commit suicide or, sky's the limit...

But it's good news for Brad (and anyone half-asleep in the audience) when the couple start to actually get along, and the voyeur aspect becomes a shared hobby (which should, in the opinion of another peephole enthusiast, "Pass the time, not fill it"). The melancholy brooding is now replaced with a familiar theme that could eventually involve one of the two couples cheating. At this point, as jealousy mounts, things actually start to happen: But anyone who may have fallen into a morbid fascination during the arduous process of trudging through this enigmatic "foreign film" (where Pitt speaks entire scenes in French), the inevitable twist, as Jolie loudly reveals her "secret," is a giant letdown because, for better or worse, a vehicle like this works best in perfectly sullen, miserable silence. 
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