Obsession plays as the main theme in Angelina Jolie’s latest stab at writing and directing. Playing alongside your husband in a film that revolves around the decline of one’s own marriage is something that you would not expect many couples to jump after. What ultimately makes By the Sea shine is the undeniably genuine chemistry between the two. Jolie plays Vanessa, a former dancer, who has deep animosity for her alcoholic husband, Roland. Roland, a writer, is able to get very little work done on his novel, as the two spend the majority of the film in a luxurious villa on the coast of France. Roland quickly associates himself with one of the bartenders at the bar downstairs, while Vanessa spends most of her time cozied up in their expansive room. She begins to make chatter with the newly-married couple staying in the room next to them. Discovering a hole that allows her to see into the couple’s room, Vanessa begins to obsess over their life, taking her focus off of her marriage.
As a director, Jolie establishes this extra layer of deviousness by having Vanessa begin to befriend the couple. Starting off as what seems like a friendly gesture of inviting Lea, the woman next door, over in what turns out just to play cards, Jolie uses this to establish the ulterior motives of Vanessa. During their game of cards, Roland comes back to the room after a day full of drinking and little writing to discover his wife and the woman he has been eyeing all throughout their stay in the middle of the room, indulging in fine wine and a game of cards. Having had a heated argument with his wife earlier that day, Roland is surprised when he is greeted with a warm welcome from Vanessa, as she invites him to join in on their game. Jolie makes it clear the Vanessa is tempting Roland with Lea. Unable to find happiness in her marriage, Vanessa begins to get infatuated with trying to ruin the happiness of a newfound marriage.
After their game of cards, Vanessa continues to peep in on the lives of Lea and her husband, François, as they live out the early days of their marriage. Unexpectedly, Roland comes back in the middle of the day to find his wife on the ground trying to cover up what she has been up to while he has been down at the bar. Well aware of what Vanessa has been up to, Roland sits down on the ground beside her to participate in what Vanessa has been spending so much of her stay doing. Unable to find happiness together, the two begin to obsess over this as it is the only thing that can draw the two together in a u state of content. While these scenes begin to feel repetitive and elongated, Jolie has a clear focus on what she is setting out to do. These scenes not only bring the couple together, but they also set the stage for what is to come, which is ultimately vital to have in order to prepare her audience for what is to come.nited
It is interesting to watch how Roland and Vanessa interact with Lea and François. There’s one point in the film where both couples go out to dinner, which makes for what is arguably the most compelling scene in the entire film. Roland and Vanessa put up a shield to hide their marital troubles as they posture themselves as this flawlessly dressed husband and wife duo. What helps to make this part of the film work so well is the way that couple engages with Lea and François. They know so much about this young couple and even what the couple truly think of them, but they have to pretend like they do not know a single thing about them, besides from the little that they have shared up to that point.
From the very first few moments that we spend with Vanessa and Roland, there is this ambiguous feeling to their relationship. Vanessa clearly begrudges Roland for something in their past, which Jolie ultimately reveals at the end in what is undeniably the weakest portion of the entirety of By the Sea. While they say the reason that they are staying at the villa is because Roland needs a clear headspace to work on his novel, it is also to get away from their life in order to move past their marital struggles. Vanessa, unwilling to let go of her animosity towards Roland, wants nothing to do with his attempts at affection. Jolie perfectly encapsulates this cold personality that her character desperately needed. As a director, Jolie uses silence to get across what she is trying to say. While it sometimes comes across as heavy-handed, Jolie’s approach is undeniably ambitious. Her screenplay avoids having her characters comes out and just say what they are feeling. Instead, she uses silence to get across to her audience what they are feeling and thinking. It is apparent that Jolie is well-versed in European cinema, as everything from the look to the feeling of her film resembles something out of Antonioni film, but what she has done here is arguably better than anything that Antonioni ever accomplished.