Sunday 25 February 2018

Movie reviews: By the Sea and Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim
Stilted: Angelina Jolie directs and stars in By the Sea

Paul Whitington reviews this week's other big releases: By the Sea, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

A few years back, Angelina Jolie announced that she would be retreating from acting in favour of a directing career. She jumped straight in, choosing worthy and weighty subject matter for her first two features. In the Land of Blood and Honey told the story of an inter-ethnic romance during the Bosnian War, and Unbroken explored the horrors of a Japanese prison camp.

They were solid and safe, the kind of films clever, well-connected novices make by surrounding themselves with seasoned editors and choreographers. But in fairness to Ms Jolie, By the Sea (2*, 15A, 122mins) takes a few more risks.

She writes, directs, co-produces and stars, alongside her husband Brad Pitt, in a film that seems to flirt with the slippery concept of celebrity. But Angelina is a past master at being seen while not being seen, and although she flashes some flesh and makes her body a kind of fascinating prop during this long and ponderous psychodrama, she remains at the end of it as opaque and unknowable as ever.

It's France, in the 1970s, and Roland (Mr Pitt) and Vanessa (Ms Jolie) roar into the frame in a vintage sports car as they race towards a remote seaside hotel. He is a writer, but also a drinker, and has been much more adept at the latter than the former of late. They've come to Europe so he can have a pop at a second novel, but also to repair their wounded marriage, which seems to have hit the skids.

He wants to have sex, she doesn't seem so keen, so he spends most of his day at a nearby bar having deep and meaningful conversations with its laconic owner, Michel (Niels Arestrup). But things get interesting when Vanessa finds a spyhole and starts watching her newly-wed neighbours enthusiastically humping. This erotic action proves contagious, though not in an entirely positive way.

Yet again, Ms Jolie has hired a fine cinematographer, in this case Christian Berger, and By the Sea looks nice in a bleached and pristine sort of way. But the film is stilted, hopelessly mannered, and impossible to believe in.

Jolie looks too strange and striking to accept as a mere civilian, and no drunk has ever looked as healthy as Brad. It seems mean asking him to share so many scenes with as good an actor as Neils Arestrup, and overall, By the Sea feels like a Midwestern American film student's idea of what a French film might be.

Though considered a poor relation by most of the Guggenheims, Margeurite 'Peggy' Guggenheim inherited $2.5m (about $34m in today's money) when she turned 21, in 1919. She fled to Paris, began mixing with avant-garde writers and artists, and became one of the world's most important art collectors.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland's documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (4*, No Cert, IFI, 95mins) is painstaking, organised and very entertaining. Split into a series of themed chapters, it uses archive footage and clips from a recorded interview Guggenheim gave to a biographer shortly before her death in 1979.

It's no hagiography either: Guggenheim emerges as difficult, self-promoting, narcissistic and totally untrained in her field. What she had, though, was the cultural equivalent of street smarts: she had a knack of cosying up to the right people at the right time.

It was her one-time lover, Samuel Beckett, who advised her to specialise in avant-garde works, and Marcel Duchamps who schooled her in modern art. But Guggenheim was a very perceptive buyer, and snapped up an extraordinary collection at the start of the war. She also helped a very influential group of Parisian artists escape from Nazi-occupied France to New York, which then became the art capital of the world.

Her public and private adventures are memorably recounted in this fine and informative film.

Coming soon...

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill); Sisters (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler); The Forbidden Room (Mathieu Amalric)

Also this week: Grandma movie review: Lily Tomlin is superb in this soulful comedy 

Irish Independent

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