A turgid, moody snore fest is in store for those who venture out to see Angelina Jolie’s second film as a writer and third as director (fourth if you count the documentary A Place in Time). She also happens to star in it (and produces it) alongside her husband Brad Pitt, but even two actors of their calibre can’t rescue a script that seems to suffer from its own sense of self-importance. The setting is positively blissful, and the clothing worn is impeccable, but neither of those is enough to sustain a movie that promises much but delivers little.
By the Sea follows an American writer named Roland (Pitt) and his wife, Vanessa (Jolie), who arrive in a tranquil and picturesque seaside resort in the south of France in the 1970s, their marriage in apparent crisis. Jolie is suffering, sick, inconsolable and wants little if anything to do with her husband, who is struggling to craft his next book. Instead, he drinks and smokes and exchanges a few words with the hotel manager Michel (Niels Arestrup). We don’t find out the root cause of Vanessa’s malaise until well into the movie, although we can take an educated guess at various stages along the way. And that is because the answer to that question (namely, why is she so troubled) is the mysterious reveal the film wants to hold tight for much of its running time. Vanessa pops pills as if her life depends solely upon them and also drinks and smokes, although not to the extent that Roland does. Rarely does she venture out.
In between sleeps and breakdowns, she also discovers a little peephole in the wall of their luxurious apartment. That leads her to spy on the couple next door, newlyweds Léa and François (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) who can’t keep their hands off one another. So, Vanessa watches with fascination and envy as this couple has sexual encounter after sexual encounter. Then Roland catches on and he too becomes a voyeur because he sure ain’t getting it from his wife. Mind you, I really can’t understand how the couple in the next room wouldn’t notice a decent size hole in their wall, low down though it may be, regardless of the fact that it is plugged up with paper when it is not being used.
This is the kind of film where very little is said and much is implied. Oh please, is this what cinema patrons are after? I sincerely hope not.
Jolie wrote By the Sea before her feature-length directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, as an exploration of grief and love. At the time she didn’t think she and Pitt would star in it. Her fascination with the fluidity and extremes of human existence informed her script. Jolie says it was not intended to be a commercial film, which it most certainly isn’t. Rather, it was “an opportunity … to experiment and explore as artists and to create something delicate and special”.
As I intimated above, instead of those last three words, substitute “dull, even soporific”. My criticism is not about the acting, but about the story and the way it is told, that is how the narrative unfolds. I lost track of the number of times I looked at my watch. Surely, the only real attraction here is the scenery outside Jolie and Pitt’s bedroom window and capturing naked and semi-naked torsos rolling around in the adjoining room.
In its style and in its treatment of the human experience, By the Sea has been inspired by European cinema and theatre of the ’60s and ’70s. Think concentrated, lean storytelling, spare dialogue and intimate, often disquieting atmosphere. Dare I suggest it should have been left in that period for this was an unnecessarily long ordeal!
Rated MA, it scores a 5 out of 10.
Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent
Release Date: 26 November, 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television