For die-hard Brangelina fans, news of the upcoming 2015 film, By the Sea, must have been music to their ears. The Hollywood power couple had not starred in a film together since their hit, Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2005. Little did they know that the new film might act as a harbinger of doom in that it was not only widely criticized by both critics and moviegoers, but also predicated the breakdown of the stars' marriage in real life.
The gossip and mixed reviews aside, a strong case can be made for watching the film on the merits of its style alone.
Not only is the film easy to watch because the main and supporting characters are beautiful and impeccably dressed, but the scenery and lighting of the film are so lovely that I found myself taken with the film despite its well-documented flaws.
Plot: Set in the early Seventies, a stylish couple driving their stylish convertible arrives at the perfect seaside resort in cliff-flanked village on the French Mediterranean coast. The small but grand resort hotel is dreamy and gorgeous and conveniently empty (for the moment) save for the staff. Their balcony, on which Vanessa (Jolie) spends a significant amount of time lounging, smoking, drinking, and brooding, faces out to the azure sea. Vanessa's husband, Roland (Pitt), seems hopeful that the location will prove isolated and quiet enough to work on his book, and it becomes apparent that he is also hoping the change of scenery will breath some life into their dying relationship. Only thing is that Vanessa seems really disinterested in doing so. At first she appears to be merely cold and unappreciative of all the small considerations her husband pays her - how many times does he make the tiny gesture of turning her sunglasses face up on the table so they won't scratch?? - but you quickly realize that the relationship is much more dysfunctional than that. While Vanessa avoids any contact with anyone including Roland and holes herself up in her room to pop pills and die of boredom, he spends each and every day pretending to write at a local bar, befriending the kindly and stoic barkeep, and drinking pastis and beer until he is too blitzed to even pretend he is working. By the time he stumbles home, he is out of patience for his wife's melancholy and certainly tired of her rebuffs of any physical contact. It is obvious these two have not gotten it on in quite a while and even this beautiful place is not inspiring them to rekindle real intimacy.
Things change when a newlywed couple checks into the hotel and Vanessa finds a small hole in the wall between their rooms where she can observe their sexual antics. What at first seems merely voyeuristic and a potential aid for Roland and Vanessa's catatonic love life, quickly devolves into a more perverse obsession. You get the impression that it is not enough to simply watch the young couple and get inspired, Vanessa wants what they have and seems to want to inhabit them. She is more fascinated with Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and spends an awkward afternoon shopping with her during which she persuades her to buy her new husband François (Melvil Poupaud) a jacket that Roland immediately recognizes as one that is identical to one he had in their earlier days when their marriage was solid. Not normal. The tension of the couples' interactions builds until it reaches a breakthrough point in the film's plot.
Style: The costumes in this film were skillfully done by Ellen Mirojnick. From the first scene, Vanessa and Roland are impeccably dressed; the actors look so at ease in their chic resort wear that they clearly convey a certain class and sense of style. Vanessa spends many of her scenes languishing in her room or on the balcony in luxurious silky loungewear, and in full make up. When she does venture out, she is shielded from having any interaction with the locals by a very wide brimmed straw sunhat and enormous sunglasses. Her day outfits are gauzy full skirts with fine gauge sweaters, and bow blouses of filmy hammered silk, or swiss dot. In the scene where they venture out at night on a double-date with the newlywed couple, she aims to impress with a glamourous body skimming sheath and updo and Roland looks relaxed and sophisticated in his pale suit. Roland is equally stylish and wears his perfectly rumpled shirts, linen pants, and gabardine suits with an air of casual elegance. He wears aviators and sports a subtle 70's sideburn. Both of them are restricted to a fairly neutral palette of beige, grey, ecru, black, with an occasional shot of pale blue or yellow. Although they are the real scene-stealers of the film, it is notable that the newlyweds by contrast are dressed more youthfully. François shown usually in a black shirt or polo and Lea in a crochet top and another scene in a white racerback sundress and long flowing hair. They represent the more youthful side of 70's fashion contrasted with Vanessa and Roland appearing more sophisticated.
click through the slideshow below to see some of the wonderful and sophisticated 70's era costumes
The story overall is pretty interesting, although I think even more could have been done with the two couples' scenes together, and the acting is pretty solid.
So why all the mixed reviews?
Many people found Vanessa's character to be melodramatic and hysterical, and the ending to be kind of unresolved. I don't really agree that those things are necessarily negative, though. For the period the film is set in, her behaviour seems kind of era-appropriate (or at least acceptable). For me it calls to mind the entire genre of French and Italian cinema of the 60's and early 70's built around that sort of damaged, gorgeous female character. I am thinking of the leads played by Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, and Monica Vitti. All these women played the well known "bored ice queen", who is both a smoldering sex symbol and also a cold untouchable object, contemptuous of and ultimately frustrating to their male counterparts. I have to admit a certain fondness for these films, not in small part because of how supremely stylish they are. In fact, one look at the makeup and hairstyles of Vanessa's character and you realize that she is stuck in her heyday as a famous dancer in the mid-60's before she became this "damaged goddess". In respect to the somewhat inconclusive ending, I am not sure what people expected. Marriage is messy, and to think a singular breakthrough during a vacation is going to be the end of deep-seated conflict is a bit unrealistic. Jolie, who directed this film and wrote the screenplay had stated that it was ultimately a film about grief, and I think she succeeds in that. Grief is a process and as you see the couple ride off you get the impression they are just onto another step in that process.
Even if you cannot forgive these sins, I still think the film is worth seeing for the value of the cinematography, set, and costuming. And that is why I think this qualifies as a fashion film.
If you have seen this movie, I'd love to hear your thoughts and overall assessment of the film's style - feel free to comment below!
sources: AP| New Yorker | imdb | TelegraphUK | TVM | Universal Pictures
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