I found a place in my head for By The Sea (Universal, 11.13). I know what this kind of low-key, vaguely depressing, damaged-relationship film is supposed to do so I was prepared. And if you know this also and can just settle in and let it unfold at its own pace…it’s somewhere between mildly okay and a little better than that.
Yes, you would be correct in assuming it’s not the equal of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s La Notte (’62) but it’s close enough — a sophisticated middle-aged glumathon, a marriage coming apart, alcohol and cigarettes, the whiff of infidelity, the husband having trouble writing like he used to. It’s certainly coming from the same downish, semi-lethargic European art-film ballpark. Quiet, intimate, slowish and yet, after a fashion, disciplined. If you can roll with this kind of mood trip, By The Sea isn’t half bad. Really. It’s more than tolerable.
Plus it has a nice erotic vibe that develops during the second half. A nice bathtub sex scene at the two-thirds mark. Plus Angelina’s bathroom boobies pop through two or three times. And it’s fascinating to just watch these two play off each other like grown-up, disappointed, starting-to-look-older human beings without the Mr. and Mrs. Smith bullshit. Plus Brad and Angie speak French-with-subtitles a third of the time. It should also be noted that false eyelashes are a significant part of Angie’s performance, at least during the first half.
And despite the depressive, lying-around-and-doing-next-to-nothing-except-drinking-and-smoking-and-and-staring-at-the-sea atmosphere, By The Sea does manage to evolve. Once the Act One lethargy has had its say, Act Two turns up the heat a bit, pivots, builds and goes somewhere. Brad Pitt finally says, “No, I don’t want a fucking drink.” And then he beats the shit out of a guy who starts to unbutton his wife’s blouse. And each scene ends a little earlier than you might expect it to. That’s usually a trait of a director who knows what he/she is doing.
By The Sea is a relatively tight ship as far as this kind of thing goes. The lady I saw it with called it “excruciating” and that’s fine — it’s not for everyone. But it’s really not that bad, and I was quite happy, in fact, to be watching something this quiet and subtle-ish and uninterested in appealing to the apes.
Everyone regards La Notte as a classic of adult existential downerism, but By The Sea is punchier — less morose and meandering, not as talky, more concentrated on “a” situation rather than “the” situation, if you catch my drift. It will do you no harm, and if you see it with the right lady you might…I was going to say “you might get lucky later in the evening” but you can never tell with these things. It is, I think it’s fair to say, a better-than-decent date movie if you have any mileage on you.