After a decade of professional separation post Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Brad and Angelina Jolie Pitt have reunited on the big screen in By The Sea – Jolie Pitt’s directorial followup to last year’s Unbroken. Both written and directed by the once tomb-raiding vixen, her latest is no happy-go-lucky romance brought upon by marital bliss, nor is it the heartfelt vanity project initially teased.
Despite cinematographer Christian Berger’s ability to capture the stunning couple in all their 70s vacationing radiance, By The Sea ends up being a vapid, empty self-indulgence that seems to drag on for an eternity full of bleak, uneventful nothingness. Think a darker Richard Linklater clone, yet with none of the genuine charisma worth a sloth-like 132 minutes. I’d suggest drinking along with Brad’s character for the best results while watching, because you’ll most likely black out before an obvious ending (fit for only the most extreme arthouse aficionados) finds itself repeatedly pushed back by inconsequential prolonging.
On the outside – like most tumultuous relationships – By The Sea showcases a posh NYC couple who find peaceful solace in France’s exotic beauty, appearing all-too-perfect at first glance. Roland (Brad Pitt), a struggling writer, looks to find inspiration in the form of relaxation, while his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) would rather spend her days lounging around their lavish suit. While doing some snooping, Vanessa finds a peep hole that enables easy spying on the room next door, which leads to a strange relationship with Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) – honeymooning lovers who celebrate their love freely. As time reveals tension between the American socialites, Roland drinks, Vanessa ganders, and their retreat turns into a cautionary game fueled by “unexpected” motives – all while love attempts to survive.
As we peel back the layers of By The Sea, motifs and metaphors wash over us like the endless ocean over rocky shores. Unfortunately, it’s more like stripping back the many layers of an onion, revealing a growing stink as we inch closer to the film’s hollow core. Even while acknowledging Jolie Pitt’s very vogue-chic production beautification, as her jilted lover looks down upon a pristine French villa from her penthouse castle, the film’s exasperating pace teases a grand “it” that’s the root of all Vanessa’s problems – but languishes in weightless style. The “it” isn’t very hidden, and we end up feeling Roland’s frustration in the form of a relentless stagnation that keeps us stuck in a moment we become bored with rather quickly. Except, we can leave that moment whenever we want, and some of you won’t waste that opportunity.
Let’s dig a little deeper here, though. Vanessa’s obsession with her hotel neighbors stems from an inner hatred that would rather destroy the happiness of others than permit her own. It’s a commentary on acceptance, exploring how hard it becomes for people to deal with an unfair disadvantage they’ve been dealt. This twisted fantasy plays out as Vanessa slowly creates the same drama she fears, wanting so desperately what the young, vivacious rival couple have – but more importantly, Lea and François’ happiness represents a time Vanessa once lived. A time of innocence she so desperately reaches out for once again.
Not only is Jolie Pitt’s character a masochist, but her gross vanity sucks those around her into her haplessly woven web of sorrow, where she preys on the weak. Unfortunately, Vanessa’s plan amounts to nothing but a clear emotional breakdown that takes two hours to reach, with little payoff in the form of manipulation, social destruction, or even the smallest erotic twist that would have added a needed spice to By The Sea.
Dig deeper, and we find Jolie Pitt’s actual cries for privacy (among more obvious confessions) hidden not in Vanessa and Roland, but Lea and François. Are we, ourselves, not Vanessa and Roland, peering into the lives of celebrities from behind our own proverbial walls, gobbling up gossip from parasitic shows like TMZ? We’re the ones who are jealous of the “picture perfect” lifestyles of the rich and famous, as we crack our own bottles of wine and beg for juicy controversy to erupt amidst these larger-than-life households. This disgusting thirst for spreading unhappiness becomes a game for those who are so dismissive of their own lives that they’d rather imprison themselves out of jealousy, ruined by all they don’t have.
Yet, again, By The Sea falters because the stench of “being famous is hard!” bullshit permeates so many scenes, told through the tears of a wealthy couple who are wasting days in a picturesque French paradise – like we’re supposed to take pity. Feel sympathy. Have our hearts moved. Anything! Yet we find nothing.
By The Sea does not suffer from conceded ambition, but a flawed, bone-dry execution that sullies stellar performances and dreamlike beaches. Pitt himself conveys complacent sorrow, and Jolie Pitt’s pouty homewrecker breaks emotional boundaries in short spurts, yet the nothingness of this homage to old-school relation-shit pieces flops around like a helpless fish out of water. Everything is a symbol for something, including a scrappy fisherman who continually goes about his middling job because it’s all he knows (the state of Roland’s marriage), but the film just plods, and sputters, and sluggishly creeps towards a weak finality.
Passionate filmmakers should be heralded for unleashing their most personal emotions, but a movie doesn’t succeed just because it’s made with the most honest of intentions – case in point.
The problem is not that By The Sea is a vanity project, it's that By The Sea drags, feels inconsequential, and fails to make use of strong leading performances and a passionate core.