What happens when you give an Academy Award winning actress-turned-director with just two pictures under her belt a thirty million dollar budget and final cut approval? The answer is Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s “By the Sea,” a sluggish marital drama she wrote, directed and stars in alongside her real-life husband, Brad Pitt.
Inspired by the elliptically plotted and deliberately paced European films of the 70’s, this lusciously lensed period piece offers some glimmers of greatness that illuminate the superstar couple’s onscreen chemistry but as a whole can’t overcome its narrative inertia. Unlike the films it emulates like Michelangelo Antonioni’s alienation trilogy, which brilliantly used setting and framing to elucidate their spare stories, “By the Sea” simply slogs along self-consciously without ever rising above imitation level. A meandering exploration of love and loss under the Mediterranean sun, Jolie-Pitt’s third feature is given a boost thanks to its talented international supporting cast highlighted by Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) and Niels Arestrup (“A Prophet”), but not enough to suppress its overwhelming dreariness.
Set at an idyllic French seaside resort in the 1970’s, “By the Sea” begins with the arrival of Roland and Vanessa Bertrand (Pitt and Jolie-Pitt) an American writer and his depressed, ex-dancer wife. As we quickly gather from the uncomfortable silences and general air of dissatisfaction between the beautiful couple, their relationship is reaching its nadir. While Vanessa remains cooped up in their hotel room, chain smoking, popping pills and drinking white wine, Roland ventures down to the local bar, run by a colorful character named Michel (Niels Arestrup), in search of inspiration for his writing. However, as one unproductive day bleeds into the next, resulting in nothing but hangovers and escalating marital tension, Roland begins to wonder if his best writing days are behind him, and if they’ll ever regain their former happiness.
Needing some excitement in their monotonous routine, Roland and Vanessa find the spark they’re looking for when they discover a peephole leading to the room of Lea and Francois (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud), a pair of honeymooners steaming up the suite next door. But while the blossoming voyeurs achieve vicarious thrills through their naughty neighbors, whom they uneasily befriend in the coming days, their newfound hobby also creates additional conflict in the process. As these vacationing Manhattanites grapple with their marital malaise, some troubling revelations about their tragic past bubble to the surface.
Although artists have every right to use their medium to explore their inner struggles – after all, it’s what they do – in the case of “By the Sea,” this approach results in the cinematic equivalent of couples counseling. To be sure, there is an undeniable bravery in the writer-director’s stripped-down, emotionally bare narrative, but without the necessary depth in the screenplay, as is the case here, this strategy always runs the risk of coming across as underdeveloped. And while the film manages to capitalize on the seaside sexiness of its premise once the bed-shaking neighbors enter the equation, it’s not enough to change the general consensus that “By the Sea” is little more than a self-indulgent vanity project with art-house aspirations.
It’s safe to assume that, regardless of negative word of mouth, moviegoers will flock to a film starring two of the biggest stars on the planet, but what they shouldn’t do is expect “By the Sea” to be a widely accessible entertainment like the couple’s previous pairing, “Mr. And Mrs. Smith.” This is not to say that Pitt and Jolie-Pitt put in poor performances: despite spending far too much time luxuriating in narcissism, they’re actually quite good, particularly Pitt, who shows slightly more dramatic dimensions than his on-and off-screen counterpart. But once audiences get over the novelty of seeing this real-life couple sharing the screen, they’ll likely find the film as disappointing as the characters’ crumbling marriage.
Running Time: 122 minutes
Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, and language.