During the re-branding, I intentionally put these two movies against each other at this point in the bracket: I naively thought that it would be an easy, obvious, quick decision, because The Piano was one of my absolute FAVORITE movies when I saw it as a senior in high school, and while Angelina Jolie was my first serious girl crush, I had heard such mixed things about By The Sea that I never saw it (and I legitimately fell asleep during Unbroken). So surely Jolie is not as good a director as she was an actor in the late 90s, right? Right??
By The Sea (2015)
Written & Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Starring: Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie
IMDB Synopsis: A couple tries to repair their marriage while staying at a hotel in France.
"Your artistic journey always coincides with life, and, if you're lucky, your life remains more full than those characters onscreen."
Some context: I was obsessed with Angelina Jolie in high school. She was the Oscar-winning, wild child, punk rock girl of my dreams, and I didn't know if I wanted to be her or be on her. When it came to Brangelina, I was #TeamAngie all the way, and was a little more crushed than I care to admit when they divorced.
By The Sea is not the version of Jolie that I grew up watching and crushing on; much like her Oscar-nominated role in Changeling, she channeled a lot of her mother. It's a facet of her that always makes me a little uncomfortable to watch: it feels terribly authentic, painfully intimate, bordering on voyeurism (which is a reoccurring theme in the film).
“I’m glad we did By the Sea because we did explore something together. Whatever it was, maybe it didn’t solve certain things, but we did communicate something that needed to be communicated to each other.”
First, the things in this that really, really worked: costumes, cinematography, and the painful but brilliant way Jolie captured vulnerability.
Costume Design was done by Ellen Mirojnick, the genius behind The Greatest Showman and Maleficent, and they took on a life of their own. I am still trying to figure out how the hell Jolie's character packed all those exquisite hats in that Louis Vitton luggage without ruining them, but I don't care - she looked phenomenal... Which, I'm sad to say, was a necessary distraction because Angelina Jolie was deathly thin in 2015. While it definitely served the fragility of her character, it was at times painful to look at.
This movie was visually gorgeous. I suppose it would be impossible to make an ugly film in Malta - against the backdrop of cobalt blue water, antiquated cafés, and poetically dangerous limestone cliffs, everything looks like a painting.
While Jolie undoubtedly had a talented cinematographer (Christian Berger), there was something incredibly intimate about her directorial choices that honestly surprised me. She meticulously built this oppressive, heavy space between her and Pitt, which is impressive considering they spend most of the movie in the same room together. The layered, nuanced history between them as a couple was palpable; juxtaposed with these incredible wide shots of the cold marble in the hotel room, the overwhelming expanse of the sea, and the arid landscape of the cliffs beneath them, you felt as connected to the beauty surrounding them as you did to the dysfunction rotting inside.
What didn't work as much for me was the weight of the ending - for the duration of two hours, you're waiting for an explanation as to why this marriage is falling apart, because it's been so heavily indicated that there was a significant event or moment that started their demise. Was it an affair? The death of a child? In the last 10 minutes we finally discover that it's because Jolie's character is barren. They tried to get pregnant, and she suffered through two miscarriages - that's why she so diabolically sets out to destroy all the happiness around her.
Honestly, it fell short for me. I think it would've been more impactful if they had addressed the era they were living in: this was supposed to take place in the 1960s, but as beautiful as the costumes were, she just as likely could've been a fashion enthusiast with an appreciation for vintage couture. If the era had been a more oppressive structure in their narrative - she was a retired dancer, and being barren would presumably make her feel like a failure as a woman and a wife - then I would've understood the weight of the realization more. But it was easy to forget that this was the 60s, and I couldn't help thinking that as tragic as it is for a woman who desperately wants to be a mother not being able to carry a child, it wasn't a strong enough explanation for all of her antics. Or maybe they just built it up too much, making it seem like the big reveal was going to be something much more insidious or sensational.
They really could've had no reason at all for her emotional stability and it likely would've worked just as well. If the pressure for the big twist had been removed, I would've fully believed that they were just two crazy kids with some weird kinks who couldn't quite make things work.
That being said, the delicately handled nuance of their voyeurism-as-foreplay was a very welcome surprise. I love watching freaky people figure out that they're not alone, and that was probably my favorite part of the whole film. The entire time I was watching, all I could think of was this Brad Pitt quote from an interview a few years before their divorce... Sometimes life really does imitate art:
“My girl got sick. She was constantly nervous because of problems at work, personal life, her failures and children. She lost 30 pounds and weight about 90 pounds. She got very skinny and was constantly crying. She was not a happy woman. She had suffered from continuing headaches, heart pain and jammed nerves in her back and ribs. She did not sleep well, falling asleep only in the mornings and got very quickly tired during the day. Our relationship was on the verge of a break up. Her beauty was leaving her somewhere, she had bags under eyes, she was poking her head, and stopped taking care of herself. She refused to shoot the films and rejected any role. I lost hope and thought that we’ll get separated soon… But then I decided to act. After all I’ve got the most beautiful woman on earth. She is the idol of more than half of men and women on earth, and I was the one allowed to fall asleep next to her and to hug her. I began to shower her with flowers, kisses and compliments. I surprised and pleased her every minute. I gave her lots of gifts and lived just for her. I spoke in public only about her. I incorporated all themes in her direction. I praised her in front of her own and our mutual friends. You won’t believe it, but she blossomed. She became better. She gained weight, was no longer nervous, and loved me more than ever. I had no clue that she can love that much. And then I realized one thing: the woman is the reflection of her man. If you love her to the point of madness, she will become it."
The Piano (1993)
Written & Directed by: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill
IMDB Synopsis: In the mid-19th century, a mute woman is sent to New Zealand along with her young daughter and prized piano for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner, but is soon lusted after by a local worker on the plantation.
“I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population - and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.”
In the original bracket, I didn’t even bother including Campion because I remembered how intensely I loved this movie as a teenager and felt certain that it wouldn’t be fair to include it considering my bias. However, it was EXTREMELY interesting to watch this movie as an adult, because WOW teenage Sarah was NOT AWARE of how problematic huge parts of this story are.
I really did not remember how extremely fucked up the whole Keitel/Hunter romance was. For those who have forgotten: Holly Hunter, a mute pianist, moves to New Zealand with her 8 year old daughter (an Oscar-winning Baby Anna Paquin) to marry the vain and possessive White Colonist, Ryan Neill. He meets them on the beach and hires the Maori natives to trek her piles of shit up a literal mountain, but leaves her beloved piano on the sand.
Before they can start their weird mail-order-bride marriage, Neill has some real estate business to take care of and disappears for a few days, so Hunter convinces Keitel to take them down to the beach again so she can visit her piano. She plays on the beach and (presumably) Keitel falls a little bit in love with her - how could you not? - and comes up with a genius idea when Neill gets back: Keitel will give a plot of land to Neill in exchange for the piano - and lessons from his new wife.
When Hunter finds out, she’s livid - but not as upset as when she finds out that Keitel doesn’t actually want to learn how to play the piano, he wants to watch her play the piano, while he… “does stuff.” What choice does she have? Desperate for her piano back, Hunter agrees. COOL NOT CREEPY AT ALL.
Throughout this extremely problematic arrangement, they somehow begin to kind of fall in love? Here’s where I feel like just a few small details would’ve really altered the ickiness of the plot: if there had been some established sexual chemistry between Keitel and Hunter at the very beginning - like if she’d gotten off the boat and thought that he was her intended, not Neill - then it wouldn’t have felt so goddamn manipulative.
Instead, even though Keitel eventually comes to feel remorse for the predicament and calls it off - “It’s making you a whore and it’s making me wretched…” - I’m left wondering if Hunter really was falling in love with him, or if she was just being groomed and manipulated because Keitel had the ONE THING IN HER LIFE THAT GAVE HER JOY (besides her daughter, of course) and since she was a powerless woman in a sexist era in a foreign land (made even MORE powerless by the absence of speech), she had no choice but to play along.
It didn’t feel established enough that Hunter might have been a little bit kinky and kind of enjoyed the arrangement. Don’t get me wrong, her eyeball acting is literally a once-in-a-lifetime performance that must be witnessed (and earned her a well-deserved Oscar), but given how we perceive consent today, I would’ve liked just a little bit more.
Despite this minor (glaring) detail, The Piano is still as shocking, tragic, erotic, and gorgeous as I remember it, and remains to this day my Single Favorite Film Score Of All Time Ever. If I could put my heart and body and soul into a musical composition, it would be Michael Nyman’s theme from The Piano. (And coming in second would be his score for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And her Lover. I’m a big Michael Nyman fan.)
The takeaway: oh my god, Holly Hunter’s face. The bonnets, the dresses, the music, and even her iconic hairstyle don’t hold a candle to the intensity of Hunter’s internal monologue. She doesn’t stop speaking for a second, and she never says a word. Her composure was meticulous, and she somehow learned how to flare her cheekbones? Hunter is extraordinary, and I truly believe only the right director could’ve nurtured and choreographed such an exceptional performance.
And the winner is...
I love that we're seeing more and more films on the bracket that were directed and written by the same woman. There is something even more pure (and badass) about knowing for certain that this was exactly the story that woman wanted to tell, and trusting that it didn't get mishandled by the vision and prejudice of anyone else.
Ultimately the difference between By The Sea and The Piano for me came down to the power of the internal monologue. Hunter’s is full of rage, arousal, desperation, and resilience, and Jolie’s was just… pain. It was such an open wound it almost didn’t feel appropriate to look at. The beauty of the film gently tricked you into witnessing a very real marriage fall apart, largely because of Jolie’s unaddressed pain. It was palpable, and it hurt. One of Jolie's greatest strengths as a director - her ability to capture vulnerability - ended up eclipsing the rest of the elements in her film. If she could learn to heal from it and harness it the way Campion has, then I will be genuinely excited to see her behind the camera in the future. She has a talent for this, she just needs to keep honing it. Until then...