"By the Sea," Written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt; with Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup
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In “By the Sea,” Angelina Jolie – who now goes by the surname “Jolie Pitt” – has tried to make a movie modeled after the European art cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. There is something touching about the attempt – and about her utter failure in the process. Jolie Pitt must have watched many of the pictures made in those decades. The cinematic Modernism that emerged in the late 1950s and through the 1960s yielded some of the greatest films of all time, but also many pictures that seemed like empty, mannerism-heavy imitations of those masterpieces. “By the Sea” falls into the latter category, whether because Jolie Pitt can’t tell the difference between the great films and their imitations, or because she lacks the talent to reach the heights she has aimed for in this movie, her third as director.
Jolie Pitt began her directing career with two movies about war: “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” set in the Balkans, and the World War Two picture “Unbroken.” These films showed her to be professionally capable, but lacking in inspiration. This time she has chosen, as well she might, to follow a different path. Her newest offering attests to the mistaken way in which filmmakers sometimes understand the essence of cinematic art. “By the Sea” is the first of Jolie Pitt’s movies in which she herself is the star; cast alongside her is her husband, Brad Pitt (who has not added her last name to his).
Jolie Pitt and Pitt (it’s funny to write the two names next to each other; when said out loud, they sound like a comedy duo) play Vanessa and Roland, married for 14 years and caught up in a state of ongoing existential crisis. The movie doesn’t tell us when or where this takes place, but it seems to be sometime in the decades whose cinematic output inspired Jolie Pitt’s film: Everyone constantly smokes. Given that the movie was shot in Malta, the setting is probably Malta.
The source of Vanessa and Roland’s crisis will be revealed only at the end of the movie. We do learn that Vanessa used to be a dancer (she says as much, and glides through the film as a dancer should; this includes twirling her foot in elegant circles while she reclines, glum as ever, in a chaise on the balcony of the remote hotel where she and Roland settle at the beginning of the film). Roland is an acclaimed writer who, like most authors in movies, is suffering from a creative crisis. He likes to sit at the local café, run by Michel (Niels Arestrup), a recently widowed man who still longs for his dead wife and with whom Roland chats in French. Roland spends most of his time at the café in order not to be a burden to his wife, who finds his presence so irksome that we worry she will collapse before our eyes, which might damage the flawless makeup she maintains despite her angst. When she emerges from her hotel room, she does so in a range of broad-rimmed hats that look very fetching on the actress-filmmaker playing Vanessa.
Why did Vanessa and Roland go to Malta? What did they think would happen to their relationship there? Their marriage, as “By the Sea” presents it to us, is deeply enigmatic, but in a hollow way that prevents us from ever finding any answers. The dialogue Jolie Pitt wrote does not help: the minimalism of the lines is of the banal type. The words are supposed to say something beyond the explicit content, but that “something,” if it was ever even there, remains elusive. (The first line in the movie is “I smell fish,” and Jolie Pitt delivers it, like most of her lines, in a deeply mournful tone. All through the movie I tried to figure out whether this means that Vanessa likes fish or not, and could not solve the conundrum.)
The turning point comes when a newlywed couple arrives at the hotel: Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) are very friendly, but Vanessa and Roland are not up to such overtures. Their attitude changes when they discover that they can peep from their room into that of Lea and Francois and watch the young couple, including while they are having sex. Voyeurism has served as an enticing plot element in many movies, but Jolie Pitt does almost nothing with it, and what she does do borders on the ludicrous. Whenever Vanessa, Roland or both of them together look through the peephole, Lea and Francois appear directly in their line of sight, doing exactly what they expect them to do (getting dressed, taking off their clothes, making love).
The two couples also begin to socialize a bit, although Vanessa and Roland do not really have the patience for Lea and Francois, who are perhaps meant to be a version of their younger, infatuated selves – or not. “By the Sea” doesn’t tell us anything clearly. Peeping in on the young couple changes something in Vanessa and Roland’s relationship, but don’t ask me why; I have no idea. The movie is made up of scenes in which nothing really happens, but this apparently represents Jolie Pitt’s conception of art cinema.
Since nothing happens during the two very long hours of “By the Sea,” Jolie Pitt’s camera has ample opportunity to look at Vanessa – that is, at Jolie Pitt herself, who perhaps should be discouraged from starring in her own films. Her performance is made up entirely of poses, but that actually fits the film, which is itself one long pose. It is also probably not a good idea for Jolie Pitt to be directing her husband; Brad Pitt has never before looked so unappealing. His face is gray – that’s what happens when you’re in a creative crisis – and the mustache his wife has made him sport is unflattering, to say the least.
The only reason I am not giving “By the Sea” even lower marks is that its writing and direction seem to have come from the very depths of Jolie Pitt’s soul, and it is not her fault that she does not really understand the cinematic tradition she wished to join and has no idea how to operate within it. “By the Sea” is clearly an extremely personal project, and this becomes even more evident when we find out the source of Vanessa and Roland’s crisis, which is linked to Jolie Pitt’s own biography. We understand what went wrong, but her grappling with the problem, both as a character and as a director, lacks any therapeutic coherence, and is therefore devoid of dramatic and emotional depth.
“By the Sea” proves that even when you are by the sea (the hotel is situated near an attractive harbor) you can still sink into a swamp of misunderstanding and incompetence. It’s touching, but it doesn’t save the result from becoming an embarrassment.