Intimate story of crumbling relationship, directed by Angelina Jolie (Pitt), is pure self-indulgence for director, not the viewer
Do you remember the scene in Quentin Tarantino’s World War II–set Inglourious Basterds in which U.S. Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, attends a film premiere in Nazi-occupied Paris and pretends to be an Italian? “Bahn-dzhohr-no,” he says, oblivious to the deep Southern accent that escapes his lips and thus turning an otherwise tense moment into comedic gold.
By the Sea, a film set in the 1970s on the French Riviera and directed by Pitt’s wife, Angelina Jolie (who on this production is credited as Angelina Jolie Pitt), includes a similar problem for the actor, but this time his accent is not played for laughs, and that is a big problem. The words leave the mouth of his character, Roland, without a problem, and there is no hint of the accent he played up in Tarantino’s film, but his inarticulate speech is near incomprehensible to the French-speaking viewer. And yet, his French interlocutor, a bar owner named Marcel (Niels Arestrup), does not bat an eye. Perhaps he is used to his clients mumbling.
Directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt
With Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Niels Arestrup, Mélanie Laurent and Melvin Poupaud
The rest of the film is also a mess. Angelina Jolie Pitt has never pouted more in any of her roles, and that is saying something. She stars as Vanessa, a former dancer and Roland’s wife of 14 years, who spends all of her time in their hotel room, motionless on the bed, with a tear slowly rolling down her check, or looking out onto the cove in front of the villa-esque hotel, or draped over the furniture, or catching some sun on the balcony while sporting obscenely big sunglasses.
The story is way too small for the two-hours-plus running time: Having recently been through a devastating tragedy that the film acknowledges in one of the first scenes and then makes unnecessarily explicit nearly two hours later, the couple temporarily relocates to the South of France so that Roland, a novelist, can write his next big work. No prizes for those who can guess the title in advance. But he spends most of his time getting drunk at Chez Marcel while a depressed and heavily medicated Vanessa fades into the wallpaper.
Luckily for Vanessa, she discovers a peephole in their wall and starts spying on the newlyweds next door, living vicariously through their sexual gymnastics as she misses out on such intimacy in her own life. As time passes, Roland joins her, and they do grow closer, although the painful episode in their lives remains unaddressed until it is almost too late.
The images are absolutely stunning, and so is Jolie Pitt’s wardrobe, but the richness of the physical exteriors cannot make up for the sad emotional interiors that never get properly fleshed out. Instead, Jolie Pitt piles on the visuals, with some striking editing (including a cut from the couple in bed at night to Roland alone in bed in the morning) and very brief but repetitive and ultimately ludicrous inserts of indefinable liquids that supposedly give a sense of Vanessa’s state of mind.
One of the few good moments occurs almost as an afterthought. While the main contrast is between Roland and Vanessa on the one side and their neighbors, the French couple, on the other, Roland also meets up with an elderly couple on a bench at the water’s edge one day. The conversation is very short, but the affection and understanding these two people have for each other are immediately obvious.
We catch a glimpse of them again later at the bar, where they are holding hands and talking like the good friends they continue to be after decades of marriage. The loquacious but sensitive Marcel also tells Roland how much he misses his wife who recently passed away, and all of these stories serve to isolate Roland in a bubble of melancholia that he resists by ordering drink after drink.
At the heart of the story, however, is the stasis and the decay of Roland and Vanessa’s relationship. Early on, the camera blatantly tells us where the hurt lies, when Vanessa goes grocery shopping and sees a child, whose innocent face we see in closeup … twice. Unfortunately, the tension fades into the background as neither Roland nor Vanessa wants to address the nagging strain on their marriage, and no one ever raises their voice until very late in the final act. Vanessa starts to play a game she does not understand, Roland becomes jealous, and they try to grow closer again by watching a kind of porn: the French couple’s raunchy workouts.
By the Sea is certainly not as bad as Guy Ritchie’s laughable Swept Away, but it is far off the mark. Drowning in stylistic flamboyance and with a narrative that is spread very thin, the film shows that its director, as she made clear with Unbroken, has enormous talent for visual showiness but lacks the skills to keep us interested when the story falls short of extended running times.
Please note that the film contains a great deal of French dialogue. In the Czech Republic, these scenes contain only Czech subtitles, but even if you do understand French, you would need to read these subtitles whenever Pitt is speaking French.