Tremendous beauty lies inside By the Sea. The beauty is a bit of given. After all, Angelina Jolie Pitt (credited here using her married name) and Brad Pitt- Hollywood’s most glamorous power couple this side of Burton and Taylor- star and the movie was shot off the coast of Malta. Real effort would be required for the results not to the visually pleasurable. Yet superficial beauty is the chief principle that keeps this sluggish, inert martial hell drama afloat. Aside from the postcard-ready imagery and sumptuous production values, the movie is quite a chore to sit through and akin to watching paint dry. Paint of a beautiful hue, but tedious nonetheless.
A certain degree of respect is due to Jolie Pitt (who not only stars but also wrote and directed) for her ambition to shepherd something that will likely appeal to such a small audience, if any at all. Furthermore, By the Sea appears seemingly an infinitely personal project for the Oscar-winning actress, one sparked by immense passion and unquestionably fashioned in the mold of moody European dramas of the 1960s like Antonioni’s L’Avventura. This vanity project comes coupled with the curiosity-arousing on-screen reunion of modern Hollywood royalty (this is but the second movie the Pitts have appeared in together, the first being Mr. and Mrs. Smith a decade ago), this is a movie that theoretically is easy to root for- in that it’s sold on the faces of genuine movie stars, not masked crusaders and marked by personal demons and desires, not corporate branding.
Well, theories don’t always pan out. As is, By the Sea is too hopelessly lifeless and so self-consciously attempting to be “cinema” that it’s a difficult movie to buy let alone sit through without losing patience. Set sometime in the 1970s, Pitt and Jolie Pitt portray Roland and Vanessa, a hopelessly glamorous couple on European holiday at a charming French seaside hotel. Roland is a writer seriously blocked (but mostly just a drunk) and Vanessa is his bored, pill-popping wife. Throughout the movie they drink, they smoke, they blankly glare off into the distance. Both are miserable- for reasons, who knows, who cares- and suffer in what amounts to a two hour-plus collection of poses and stares (with passive-aggressive digs spewed nearly each reel for good measure). Such unfortunate souls, these rich and beautiful people.
Yet the film has no flow. Each scene- all carefully photographed, costumed and art decorated- is nearly independent of one another. Roland and Vanessa spend their days largely apart- he at the bar getting soused, she typically in their room blankly starring off into the distance. A smarter, shapelier, more economic movie might have been able to stylistically stitch By the Sea‘s repetition and lethargy to underscore Roland and Vanessa’s eternal unhappiness and dread or pack some energy, spontaneity or vitality into the frame. Little touches at the start of the film suggest idiosyncrasies beneath the surface like the way Roland and Vanessa re-arrange their hotel room furniture after arriving or Roland’s obsessive tic to correctly stow Vanessa’s sunglasses right-side up on the bureau. But in By the Sea, nothing builds and nothing is followed through.
If there’s a fascination to By the Sea- and there is even if the movie isn’t any good- it lies in who is playing these miserable, beautiful people. Like the vehicles of Burton and Taylor before them, there’s a watch-ability to this increasingly labored and languid film that lies in the endless curiosity of looking at the Pitts. There’s a flicker of longing that at some point in the film the facade will drop and suddenly we will find ourselves watching Brad and Angelina, not Roland and Vanessa and that some unexpected truth (either banal or impassioned) will come to the surface. The cleverest development in By the Sea itself revolves around the primal power and interest in voyeurism as Roland and Vanessa become oddly invested, then further detached by spying on their honeymooning neighbors (played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, both of whom are suitably beautiful themselves).
The fascination doesn’t nearly extend to the performance themselves however, not that Jolie Pitt’s screenplay provides much in the department of character development- this is rigorously straining to be a swoony mood film, after all. Brad Pitt comes off the strongest of the group nonetheless with a technically proficient turn- the actor has an appropriate swagger and carefully modulates his work in a haze of drunk and morning-after hangovers- Pitt ably acts drunk and speaks credible French throughout. Jolie Pitt herself, however, seems adrift and not in a particularly compelling or lived-in way. Her Vanessa is sullen but so anesthetized to render much of an impression at all. Her ennui and misery is never made palpable and while Jolie Pitt tries to assert a range to her character’s pill-addicted mindset, there’s nary a tiny bit of the danger and primal sensuality that made her such an bewitching screen presence in the first place. She has previously directed two other features including last years’ Unbroken, yet this is the first of her directorial works of which she was acted in. Niels Arestrup (French great of films including A Prophet and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is the only performer who unleashes any sort of emotional honesty in the small (and thankless) part of Roland’s barkeep.
The biggest misstep however comes as Jolie Pitt ditches her breathy fetishization of Antonioni and decides her dreary scenes from an awful marriage bit needs clarification. A purpose- and theoretical story- unearths itself and proves the most plodding, predictable and pointless of By the Sea‘s errors. Hopefully Jolie Pitt may one day prove a strong director, but this yawn is not even unintentionally funny enough to qualify as decent camp.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
By the Sea looks beautiful- director of photography Christian Berger (an Oscar nominee for Michael Haneke’s haunting black and white The White Ribbon) deserves special recognition and does production designer Jon Hutman and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (the hats in the film are especially exquisite). But sadly, By the Sea is inert, turgidly lifeless under-cooked drama posing as “cinema.” As such, it’s difficult to imagine even the most adventurous and patient of moviegoers getting much out of this Angelina Jolie Pitt joint. It’s difficult enough to stay awake.