Glamorously messy and deliriously deranged, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea is boldly uncategorical but sadly features too little of Jolie and her artistic voice to merit victory. As always, Jolie and husband Brad Pitt are watchable in any given frame, able to comfortably expose their intimate chemistry for the sake of human truth. Playing a couple on the verge of a marriage implosion, these two A-listers manage to seem right at home waging emotional war on the European waterfront. By the Sea is set in 1970s France, its luscious and deeply romantic countryside now a bit more inviting to those with naughtier appetites thanks to a certain sexual revolution gripping the world. Depressed socialite housewife, Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), and famed writer husband, Roland (Pitt), use this working vacation as a way to mend their relationship just as much as Roland’s career. By and large, By the Sea is a tribute of sorts to masters of cinema (most notably Hitchcock and Fellini), their tricks, aesthetics and narrative gimmicks all woven together as propulsion for Jolie Pitt’s vision. However, Jolie loses herself too much in the process, her protagonist fading into the shadows of her hotel room while Pitt’s Roland becomes too prominent for such a played-out archetype (an Ernest Hemingway-like alcoholic writer attempting to find his inspiration amidst the beautiful European tranquility). By the Sea works best when the melodrama reaches critical level and the inner agony of Vanessa is lain bare.
By the Sea starts off with incredible promise that justifies its rather superficial coating. The audience is effectively hit with a shovel over the fact that presentation among the affluent is almost always deception. Everything about Vanessa’s introduction screams disingenuous and calculated, be it the way she dresses, to the orchestrated placement of her body, to the reading material (Vogue magazine and prolific literature) she dispassionately consumes. This is a woman who hides behind her wealth, who uses the gifts of such fortune to project happiness when all she’d rather do is cry out all the suffering that’s stifling her soul. Even though it’s probably the worst-kept tragic backstory secret in history, I’m going to abstain from spoiling the source of Vanessa and Roland’s relationship woes since the journey to such admittance makes far more impact than the actual truth.
Just when it looks like paradise is lost, Vanessa discovers a peephole near the bottom of her bed that allows her to have quite the voyeuristic vantage point. Through it, she’s able to become sexually rejuvenated just by the sight of her young newlywed neighbors making love from dawn to dusk. Roland, meanwhile, makes a drunk and disorderly fool of himself at the local pub, taking out his frustrations with writer’s block and Vanessa’s instability on supremely congenial bar keeper, Michel (Niels Arestrup). Honestly, these segments with Roland and Michel are so cringe-worthy that I’d almost rather have the latter character cut from the film if it meant not having to deal with Roland’s entitlement and condescension toward the locals. Their “friendship” doesn’t progress the story forward either; it’s merely used as a manipulative means to drive home the fact that, yes, Roland is just as detestable as his wife.
Faring little better are Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, who respectively play the intriguing couple Vanessa — and, much to his chagrin, Roland — can’t keep their eyes off of. The two are more a symbolic device than anything else, a thread back to Vanessa’s past when youth seemed everlasting and sex was an exhilaration that made the living feel even more alive. A lot will be said about how voyeurism eclipses all other themes in the film, but it’s laudable that Jolie Pitt makes one thing crystal clear: voyeurism isn’t sexy at all — it’s irrefutably gross. The more Vanessa and Roland spy on their neighbors’ intimacy, the further we distance ourselves from whatever justifications automatically spring to mind to excuse our troubled lovers’ behavior.
By the Sea’s use of jarring scene-change edits, muddled flashback imagery, and jump cuts are quintessential 70s cinema techniques that actually don’t flow as much as irritate. I get Jolie Pitt is paying homage to classic movies she probably grew up with that inspired the writer/director/actress she is today, but you risk audience detachment when mimicked style is overtly executed. You know an art film goes one step too far as soon as substance becomes a prop to style. Like Jolie Pitt, I’m a huge proponent of character study dramas, and thus it was more than a little disappointing to walk away from By the Sea only scratching the surface of Vanessa.
The Pitts can do no wrong in the acting department, and By the Sea is clearly no exception. Jolie summons every terrifying emotion to the forefront, while Brad Pitt once again sheds his “pretty boy” image by roughening up his persona. As Roland, Pitt is a lot less approachable or even likable than almost any film he’s been in, including some iconic villains of his we can’t help but love to hate. There’s no love lost for Vanessa and Roland, though Vanessa’s aging phobia makes her the more relatable of the insufferable pair.
I know you are all itching to know whether By the Sea is a late-entry Oscar contender or not. The bottom line: absolutely not. This film requires too much patience from the Academy without reward of conventional payoffs. Pitt and Jolie will be the selling point of the film, and that should be enough for the studio to earn back its investment. Had Jolie been given a bit more screen time and character nurturing, she could have possibly launched a successful “Best Actress” campaign. Even if Jolie Pitt was positioned as a viable hopeful, her competitors in the category are granted more time to shine in their respective films, not to mention the movies they’re associated with are undoubtedly superior to By the Sea.
Releasing nationwide on November 13th by Universal Pictures, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s third directorial effort By the Sea also serves as this year’s AFI Festival opener. Be sure to check out the trailer below if you’ve yet to see Hollywood’s most powerful couple go tear to jeer.