AFI Review: Angelina Jolie Pitt’s ‘By the Sea’ (★★)
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s By The Sea attempts to break down and humanize two of the most alien and illustrious faces in Hollywood in an intimate setting. Angelina Jolie Pitt’s third directorial project breaks away from the prestige of her last film, Unbroken, but the vanity project she offers is glossy, artificial and incoherent. Throughout all of By The Sea’s promotion, Jolie Pitt has said countless times that it wouldn’t be a commercial film but her attempt at creating a small, quasi-European art film. Unfortunately, Jolie Pitt’s art house sensibilities are lacking and the gorgeous French sea sides combined with a stunning cast and sumptuous art direction ultimately only manages vapid vignettes of a dry, crumbling marriage.
Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) and Roland (Brad Pitt) find themselves in a quaint town on the seaside of France where Roland is looking for inspiration for his latest novel. The couple doesn’t particularly care for anyone besides themselves, but after an accident even that care has dissipated. Roland gets very little writing done but instead falls into his vice of drinking while Vanessa sunbathes, wanders aimlessly and abuses prescription drugs. The two abstain from each other and fight more than love, but a hole peeking into the neighbor’s room unites Vanessa and Roland. They watch on as the young couple, François (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Mélanie Laurent), discover each other’s bodies and try to make a child.
By The Sea fails as an art house exhibition in part because of its pacing and bombastic editing. The best independent and art films meander with meaning and capture their images at length, whereas By The Sea chugs along and never develops any of its visual motifs. Instead of a cohesive and intricate look at the failing marriage of Vanessa and Roland, Jolie Pitt presents portraits of their struggles that come off clouded and underdeveloped.
What is really disappointing are the few moments of excellence that really illustrate what the film could have been. Jolie paints a subtle distinction between Vanessa and Roland in the opening scenes: Vanessa would place her sunglasses frames down and Roland would always flop them over, showing the carefulness of Roland and the flippancy of Vanessa. While this happens many times throughout the first act, the motif is never revisited and doesn’t actually bring any truth to the couple’s characteristics.
When Vanessa and Roland finally give into their sexual temptations, there is real magic in the distant sensuality, but for every truly inspired moment with a firm directorial hand, there are five scenes of insufferable and aimless melodrama. Despite the mess, By The Sea gets into a groove that is sort of fascinating to watch, much like a car crash: I knew what I was watching wasn’t any good, but I wanted to know how it ended and what caused it.
Unfortunately, any healthy ambiguities and blurred narrative is destroyed in the third act as Vanessa’s inability to have children becomes the forefront of the film. It ditches the fun and interesting mess and just becomes a cringe-worthy affair as Roland pushes Vanessa to confess her infertility which results in multiple uncomfortable screams of “I’m barren!” between sobs. But, this moment is the true climax of the film and is what the two preceding hours were pointing to, making the rest of the exercise seem even more tired and empty. If it was really a small European film, Jolie should have left out the twists in the third act and focused on the beautiful imagery and developing the relationship in a cohesive way. The infertility is greatly hinted throughout the movie, but Jolie decided to spoonfeed the drama directly to us instead of letting her work speak for itself.
Maybe it could have worked better if it hadn’t featured the most famous Hollywood couple. Instead of appearing as a small and intimate portrayal of a rough marriage, the film simply comes off as a steamy roleplaying drama. That isn’t to undermine Jolie’s performance where she let her guards down and produced a fragile, albeit one-note character. If anything, the film illustrates that Jolie is just as capable of an actress as she was a decade ago. The character is naked and flawed with trepidations that are occasionally interesting–and huge, messy eye-make up only exaggerates the mess of a human. Inversely, Pitt rings in a simple performance with moments of tenderness but I’m not convinced he actually cared about the glamorous project.
When it is all said and done, By The Sea is no cinematic sin, in fact, its greatest problem is its useless addition to Jolie’s directorial ascend and to the world of film. It’s just an exercise on beauty and self-indulgence with the occasional inspired moment. Brangelina fans may get a kick out of the messy romance on the big screen, but the film won’t find a home in the oeuvre of foreign art films about pretty people’s marriages failing in pretty places.
[author title=”About the Author – Tanner Stechnij” image=”https://scontent-sea1-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xpa1/v/t1.0-9/11822829_10207349046754243_3268408910518216973_n.jpg?oh=126e441d5f5312293e6a21d1398d6296&oe=56B84AEA”]Tanner Stechnij is 19-years-old and studying journalism at ASU. He has always been interested in the arts and trained as a classical musician for many years before trying new things. He is only ankle deep in the world of cinema, but as a young cinephile he has found a true passion for all types of film. His username in the forums is tstechnij.[/author]