Film Review: By the Sea

Angelina Jolie Pitt's fashionably decrepit romance stars herself and Brad Pitt as a voyeuristic couple on the rocks.
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A divertingly gorgeous mediocrity, By the Sea arrives onscreen pushing a trainload of expectations ahead of itself. After Angelina Jolie Pitt’s little-seen In the Land of Blood and Honey and last year’s Unbroken, this stands as her first broad test of her abilities as a writer-director. Unlike those war dramas, this chamber piece has no historical resonance or book-club fans to fall back on. There’s just a hotel room, some pretty scenery, and a couple whose marriage is disintegrating. Add to that a stealthy ad campaign, a vague trailer hinting at 1970s Bertolucci-like decadence, and the first pairing of Jolie and her now-husband Brad Pitt since they played another warring couple in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and you have a movie almost guaranteed to attract all the wrong kinds of attention. That isn’t to say the film is going to be unfairly judged; there is a lot here to find issue with. But those expecting a Swept Away-type debacle will be either mildly surprised or disappointed, depending on their level of schadenfreude.

Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) and Roland (Pitt) come zooming in a sporty little silver convertible to their hotel on a rocky shoreline somewhere in the south of France. The film has barely started and their baked-in glamorous lassitude already signals serious problems. An ex-dancer, Vanessa swans out of the car in a swirl of leopard-print imperiousness before ensconcing herself in their grand, dark room with a blindingly bright and hypnotic view of the bay. Her many prescription bottles are a given before we even see a pill cross her lips.

A once-celebrated writer, Roland reeks of impatience and aggression; he’s barely set up his writing table in the room before he escapes down to the café where he will spend most of the film failing to write and succeeding at drinking heavily. Neither has much to say to the other, even with the elephant that Jolie’s none-too-subtle script dumps into the room. “Have a nice day,” Roland says to Vanessa as he heads out. “I won’t,” she replies. “I know,” he throws back, irritated as the audience soon will be about the thing weighing on her that she won’t discuss.

Occasionally, By the Sea appears pointed towards darker territory. Roland’s temper-fueled drunkenness and Vanessa’s nearly paralytic unresponsiveness are at right angles to each other. The room operates as battleground and prison. But Jolie Pitt keeps pushing the point of confrontation away. It’s as though the couple has already had all their fights and don’t see the point in having another one. So Roland spends his days at the café, making fast friends with the proprietor Michel (Niels Arestrup, poetic and avuncular as always). The couple drift along as the film does, awash in sunbaked photogenic decadence like some retro fashion magazine spread.

A wrinkle of kink is introduced after Vanessa discovers a spyhole in the wall. This lets her watch a perky young honeymooning couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). She brings Roland into her voyeuristic hobby. They eat dinner by the spyhole, taking turns watching the youngsters vigorously mate, and trying to suppress their laughter. They even make friends with the couple in a murkily plotted surrogate erotic game. For a few moments, it seems as though Vanessa and Roland can be a couple again. But nothing between the two of them is quite that simple.

Neither as decadent at the core as its lavishly photographed exterior would suggest nor as romantic as the elusively thin screenplay promises, By the Sea never completely delivers on story or mood. The gaping lacuna that the film keeps dancing around is glaringly obvious from about Vanessa’s third meaningful silence. Almost more problematic is the stiffness between Jolie Pitt’s vampish passivity and her spouse’s dull disconnect; neither of them quite registers as up for the challenge of a closely observed emotional potboiler like this.

Underwritten vanity piece though it might be, By the Sea is no glamour-couple disaster. The French performers deliver the sparkle, the period ennui is extravagantly thick, and the resounding anti-climax merely reinforces that Jolie was trying all along for an observational minor-key piece. Put another pair of actors into those designer outfits, hire a few crack script doctors, and it might have been something.

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