By the Sea (2015)
In the 1970’s, a married American couple – Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) arrive at a quaint seaside resort in France.
During their stay, Roland, a writer, attempts to find a story with the locals, spending much time with the humble bartender Michel (Niels Arestrup), while Vanessa takes a voyeuristic fascination with the young newlyweds next door — Léa (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud).
However, it soon becomes evident there is much tension and unresolved issues brewing between Roland and Vanessa, who struggle to reconnect with one another, their personal affairs eventually affecting their new acquaintances.
A few things are quite clear within the first ten minutes of By the Sea, 1) Angelina Jolie Pitt has some serious baggage regarding marriages, having been through two before current spouse Brad Pitt, 2) the Pitts really love Europe and wanted a holiday, 3) Angelina loves seeing herself in makeup and 4) the actress-writer-director shouldn’t pen feature screenplays, having no sense of story or character development.
The basic structure of Act 2 goes a little like this — Roland and Vanessa wake up, bicker, Roland hits the bar, Vanessa pervs on the twosome next door, Roland comes home, more bickering. Rinse, repeat. It really feels as though this narrative could have worked better as a novel, allowing readers to penetrate the psychology of the central characters or maybe a play, based solely on a couple arguing over a weekend. If it had to be a film, a 15-minute short would’ve sufficed, but as a feature, this repetitive sequence of events just doesn’t cut it.
You see, the story attempts to create an aura of mystery surrounding the wedge between the couple, but telegraphs the answer very early, leaving viewers impatient with the lack of discussion, then bored when it does come out. The characters don’t truly appear better or worse for their journey either; the cynic in me figuring they probably would’ve had a blown tire and subsequent argument if we saw an after-credits scene.
Clearly inspired by European cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s, By the Sea has been set in that time period, but seems only to reflect the era’s worst narrative habits and the best in a visual sense. The key saving grace of this shrug-worthy experience is the cinematography by Austrian Christian Berger, a long-time collaborator of director Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon (2009), who masterfully captures the natural beauty and light of the serene coastal town of Mġarr ix-Xini, Gozo, Malta (yep, sorry folks, that’s not really France). A stirring music score by Gabriel Yared, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), almost convinces that there’s something significant happening, but alas, more moods, more squabbling.
I mentioned Angelina Jolie Pitt’s love of makeup earlier, because it’s actually a major credibility problem here. See, we’re meant to identify with this troubled wedlock duo, accepting that they’re just regular people, despite the fact that they’re being played by one of Hollywood’s biggest star couples. Okay, I’ll go with that, and hey, Brad Pitt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), does an excellent job of downplaying himself, not afraid to look a little worn and gruffy, even if he does seem to have a perfect set of shirts. But Angelina — can’t buy it.
It doesn’t matter if she’s just woken up, gone for a shower or heck, even dived into the friggin’ sea, regardless of morning, noon or night — Vanessa has perfect makeup, sans a little runny mascara after tears. When the character reluctantly enters a restaurant, citing she’s ‘not dressed properly,’ it’s really scoff-worthy. Please. Angelina could’ve at least created a moment prior, where she vomits on herself or gets pooped on by a bird. I’d accept it best if we come to understand her makeup habits as an attempt to hide her true self — that would be real subtext. There isn’t even a hint of this, despite the character supposedly wallowing in anger and sorrow, with her perfectly done-up face coming across as pure vanity on Angelina’s part. Honestly, this couple don’t seem like ‘regular people.’ Add to the fact that Vanessa appears to be little else but an asshole (Roland’s own word, not mine), which makes spending time with her all the more difficult.
Apparently this marks the last feature in Jolie Pitt’s acting career — unfortunate, considering she can be a great actress if given the right material — see Changeling (2008). At one point, Vanessa quietly asks ‘Am I bad person?’ to which Roland responds ‘Sometimes.’
Couldn’t have summarized Angelina Jolie Pitt’s directorial career better.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
By the Sea is released through Universal Pictures Australia