Just because Angelina Jolie wrote, directed and stars in a film chronicling a supremely unhappy marriage, don’t get the wrong idea about “By the Sea,” or about Jolie’s relationship with Brad Pitt, who plays her husband. “Brad and I have our issues,” she told the Telegraph, “but if the characters were even remotely close to our problems we couldn’t have made the film.”
She’s apparently telling the truth. That’s the only explanation for how devoid of real emotion the movie is. Set on the French coast in the 1970s, “By the Sea” is dazzlingly gorgeous, as are its stars. But peeling back layer upon layer of exquisite ennui reveals nothing but emptiness, sprinkled with stilted sentiments.
Jolie plays Vanessa, a retired dancer who has been married to writer Roland (Pitt) for 14 years. They were once the “toast of New York,” as Roland laments, but those days are gone. Having come to this tiny seaside village so that Roland can write another book, he spends his days getting drunk at a nearby cafe and chatting with manager Michel (Niels Arestrup). Meanwhile, like a self-imposed Rapunzel, Vanessa locks herself in her hotel room, reading or lounging on the attached terrace, filling and refilling her wine glass, and popping pills.
“Have a nice day,” Roland tells her one morning, as he heads out to, er, write.
“I won’t,” Vanessa responds.
“I know,” he replies. “Love you.”
Being a dilettante, it turns out, is monotonous. The only thing worse is watching it.
This is the first time that Jolie and Pitt have worked together since 2005’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” another movie about a strained marriage. But boredom was a prelude to action in that case; the two played assassins whose assignments were to kill each other.
In the absence of that level of excitement, Jolie has embedded a mystery within the narrative. Unlike a lot of sad couples, these two are bitter for a specific reason. That secret is supposed to ignite our curiosity, when Roland asks Vanessa whether they’re ever going to talk about “it.” Unfortunately, the matter is pretty obvious early on.
To inject a bit of life into the miserable routine, some more beautiful people show up. Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud play lusty newlyweds who end up in the room next door. This provides Vanessa with a new pastime, given that there’s a hidden hole in the wall between the rooms. Now she intersperses her sunbathing and wine drinking with peeping on the lovebirds as they do what honeymooners do.
Intriguing existential ideas lurk on the margins of “By the Sea.” Vanessa becomes fascinated by a fisherman she sees rowing away from shore each morning and coming back every evening. How does he weather the tedium of it all? she wonders. Then there’s the notion of judging another’s happiness, based on nothing but appearance. This is worth exploring, in an age of social media.
But provocative themes and lovely cinematography (by Christian Berger) only go so far. None of it is enough to break through the relentlessly dour shell that encases the movie, separating the audience from a heart that’s more like a mechanical timepiece anyway.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity, sex and strong language. In English and French with subtitles. 132 minutes.