In the 1970s-set By the Sea, an American writer Roland (Brad Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie, credited here as Jolie-Pitt) show up at a sleepy seaside town on the French coast, where he hopes to compose his latest novel.
But Roland doesn’t do much writing. When not chatting with bartender Michel (Niels Arestrup) for inspiration, he spends his time getting plastered. Left alone in the hotel room, Vanessa spends her time relaxing in the sun on the balcony, relaxing in the tub, relaxing with a book in bed. And popping pills.
And so goes By the Sea. For nearly an hour, the fisherman sails out to the sea in the morning and comes back in the late afternoon, Roland gets drunk while staring at his notepad, Vanessa pops some pills and saunters around the hotel room, and this husband-and-wife team rarely speak to each other or even interact.
When she goes to the store to buy some food and briefly interacts with her young neighbor (Mélanie Laurent), it’s a major event.
In a word, it’s slow – think L’Avventura, only deprived of the inciting incident, or anything subsequent. This is going to turn off most viewers, especially those coming to a Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie movie with preconceptions of what those box office names bring to a movie.
In fact, By the Sea might be the only Antonioni-esque arthouse movie to hit every multiplex in the city; it debuted in the US last week on 10 screens, but now it’s playing in 17 cinemas in Prague alone.
The film has turned off most critics, too, with By the Sea sitting under 30% on the Tomatometer. Many seem to be penalizing the movie for indulgence on the part of writer-producer-director-star Angelina Jolie, but it’s no more indulgent than any film from a single-vision auteur, and it’s especially interesting considering the celebrity surrounding Jolie and the themes it touches on.
I dug the chilly-cool 60s vibes the film was putting out during its first half, the gorgeous location filming (in Malta, not France) and lush cinematography by longtime Michael Haneke collaborator Christian Berger, all the picture-perfect compositions and period fashion and cars and even attitudes that capture the time and place.
Without much going on, it can feel (as other critics have noted) like an extended fashion magazine photoshoot. But that was okay by me, I thought, as I let the atmosphere wash over me and got lost in thought in the vistas.
And lo and behold, during the film’s second half By the Sea actually develops narrative structure, backstory, and even a sense of humor as the Jolie-Pitt characters interact with their newlywed neighbors (Laurent and Melvil Poupaud), who they take to dinner and go sailing with and spy through a hole in the wall.
The alcohol/drug abuse and contrast between these two couples – and, of course, the teaming of real-life husband and wife Pitt and Jolie – will immediately recall Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a faintly similar scenario. By the Sea doesn’t have anything as strong as Ernest Lehman’s script backing it up, but the laid-back atmosphere and locale recalls other Burton-Taylor vehicles from the era like The Sandpiper, Boom!, or The Comedians.
I don’t think there’s been quite an onscreen pairing of a couple with this level of celebrity since then (though Kidman-Cruise made some waves in Far and Away and then Eyes Wide Shut), and given that Jolie has conceived and executed this film herself, it’s hard not to draw parallels to their personal lives.
Take, for example, the themes here of watching and being watched as the Jolie-Pitt characters spy on the couple next door, and how it relates to the audience watching this famous couple on screen (Jolie, it must be noted, isn’t shy about baring herself for her own camera).
By the Sea certainly won’t be for everyone, and many seem to be dismissing it outright merely for being the product of its celebrity star. But it’s that very connection that makes it so interesting, and this is easily Jolie’s finest film as director following In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken. If nothing else, it’s undeniably elegant and refined, a beautiful thing to look at and get lost in.