Angelina Jolie’s ‘By the Sea’ Kicks Off AFI Fest With More Star Power Than Oscar Clout

Jolie says deeply personal film drew on the grief she felt after her mother’s death

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at the By the Sea premiere
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The 2015 AFI Fest began on Thursday night not with a bang, but with a whisper.

Quite a few whispers, in fact. Along with murmurs, and sighs, and soulful glances and pregnant pauses. Lots of pregnant pauses.

And because those whispers and sighs and pauses came courtesy of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, AFI Fest also kicked off with plenty of flashbulbs, a lot of ceremony and a ridiculous crush at the Hollywood Roosevelt after-party, where Angie and Brad and a group of pals and Universal bigwigs chatted in a raised area ringed by security guards, while less privileged partygoers surrounded them armed with only a sea of iPhone cameras.

All of this was on behalf of a small, intimate, slow-paced and deeply personal movie, “By the Sea.” Directed by Jolie (or Angelina Jolie Pitt, as she is now billed) and starring herself and her real-life husband, the film is about as far as you can get from the extravagant, large-scale brutality of “Unbroken,” the 2014 movie that marked her second effort as director.

That film was presumed to be a major awards contender before anybody saw it, but it turned out largely to be a non-starter in the Oscar race. “By the Sea,” in contrast, came to the AFI Fest without much awards ballyhoo, and the lack of Oscar buzz is likely justified. Unless voters fall in love with supporting actor Niels Arestrup, who plays a restaurant owner with his customary rumpled ease and quiet charisma, “By the Sea” will likely prove to be too small and far too slow for mainstream awards voters.

A thoroughly measured look at a couple who head for a small seaside town so that the husband, an author, can clear his head and write in the aftermath of an initially unspecified tragedy, it sinks into a mood of morose resignation and stays there for more than two hours. The contrast with Universal’s bigger awards movie, “Steve Jobs,” couldn’t be more dramatic; that film’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, could probably fit a 160-page script in the pauses between the lines in “By the Sea.”

But the film is also deeply personal for Jolie Pitt. Introducing the film, American Film Institute CEO Bob Gazzale mentioned a woman named Marcheline who joined the AFI in the late 1970s, when her daughter was 3 years old, and remained a member for the rest of her life, while her daughter grew up to become an actress, a movie star and now a director.

That woman, Marcia Lynne “Marcheline” Bertrand, was Jolie Pitt’s mother, and she died of cancer in 2007.

And when she introduced the film before the AFI premiere, Jolie Pitt opened by saying that she was going to keep her remarks short, because otherwise she’d get too emotional. “We did our best,” she said of the film. “We tried to be open to be honest and to give of ourselves… The film is at the core about grief, and the grief is for the loss of my mother.”

At the Hollywood Roosevelt party afterwards, the response was respectful, with viewers comparing it to the likes of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte” (another film about a married couple on the rocks) and talking about the gorgeous scenery and the alternately gorgeous and scary-looking stars.

And then, of course, everybody went to gawk at Brad and Angie some more.

The AFI Fest will run through next Thursday, and it’ll no doubt showcase a few likelier awards contenders before the week is out. But it won’t get any more star power than it had on opening night.