4 out of 10
By the Sea Cast:
Brad Pitt as Roland
Directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt
American writer Roland (Brad Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) come to a beautiful French seaside resort so he can do some writing and they work out some marital issues, but things aren’t going so well until they start spying on the younger couple in the neighboring suite (Melvil Poupaud, Melanie Laurent) and living vicariously through their sexual encounters.
Back in 2004, I sat in on a roundtable interview with Angelina Jolie — this was a year before she made Mr. & Mrs. Smith with future husband Brad Pitt — and someone asked her why she thought her 2003 romantic drama Beyond Borders bombed. She basically explained that she makes the kind of movies she would want to see and that her tastes were essentially that of a housewife (who aren’t notorious for selling out movie theaters). The following year, she worked with Brad Pitt, the two fell in love, had kids and eventually got married, which wouldn’t be something worth mentioning in a review if By the Sea wasn’t the first movie they’ve done together since Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
When couples work together, it can often be a recipe for disaster, and while I generally have liked Jolie’s previous films as a director, her fourth attempt bears an eerie contrast to Shanghai Surprise and Swept Away, two films Madonna made with her ex-husbands. Granted, she didn’t direct either of those and Jolie is a significantly better actor than the pop singer, but it’s hard to avoid those comparisons.
By the Sea is clearly influenced by the films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, glamorous “travelogue porn” like L’Aventurra, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Godard’s Contempt, all films that snobbish film critics will gush all over when given the chance but are ultimately quite dull and masturbatory for modern mainstream audiences.
Jolie Pitt finds a suitably picturesque French seaside village as her setting to explore the failing relationship between a married couple, giving herself a character that strives to be Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion as she makes more of an effort at a stylized performance.
The first 40 minutes or so cuts between Brad Pitt’s Roland drinking away his troubles and Vanessa lounging around their room moping about something that’s not explained until the film’s last few moments, as Jolie Pitt tries to create mystery and intrigue around what caused such friction in Roland and Vanessa’s marriage. It’s not a particularly impressive screenplay compared to the war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey, and most of the scenes between them involve stilted conversation with him chastising her for not talking about something and her not responding… end scene. Much of the first half is made up of these disjointed scenes that end suddenly without explanation and images that do little to carry the story forward.
For one of the most interesting women in the world, Jolie has written herself the least interesting woman possible, someone who spends most of her time in a room either alone or fighting with Roland and accusing him of lusting after other women, then delivers snobbish airs to everyone she encounters when she decides to venture into the village. Vanessa eventually finds a hole in the wall to the neighboring room where she spies on the younger couple having passionate sex, and things ease up in her tenuous marriage as the two of them sit on the floor taking turns peeping through the hole, living vicariously through the sexy younger couple next door, because… well, why not? (How neither of the two next door realize there’s a fairly large and obvious hole in their wall is something that’s never revealed.)
Apparently, pulling triple duties is too much for Jolie Pitt (who didn’t act in her previous two dramas), and much of the movie is as awkward and uncomfortable to watch as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s squabbles in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. In fact, the French actors give far more interesting performances than anything the Pitts are able to pull off with Pitt’s awful attempt at speaking French derailing many early scenes.
The movie has serious tonal issues throughout, where you’re not sure whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry or be shocked or watch, as we watch the couple bond over their voyeurism of their younger resort neighbors. Maybe that aspect of the plot would be more intriguing if it hadn’t been used in a much funnier way as the plot of an episode of FX’s “Married.”
The film does start to get better as it gets further away from trying to be a wanky French art film, but at a certain point, you’re wondering if it will devolve into an episode of “Celebrity Wife Swap with the Pitts.” The infidelity never goes that far before Roland and Vanessa finally deal with what they’ve been waltzing around for nearly two hours… and the reveal is such a dramatic cliché, you’re likely to be disappointed to have had to sit through all the masturbatory filmmaking leading up to that point.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid the obvious analogy between the way awful Americans like Roland and Vanessa ruin the French seaside for everyone in the film, just like Brad and Angelina ruin French films for everyone else.
The Bottom Line:
As beautiful as it is boring, Angelina Jolie Pitt has successfully created a movie that she might want to watch… but no one else.