Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup, Richard Bohringer
Runtime: 2 hrs 2 mins
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scenes and Nudity)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 31 December 2015
Synopsis: Written, directed and produced by Academy Award® winner Angelina Jolie Pitt, By the Sea follows an American writer named Roland and his wife, Vanessa, who arrive in a tranquil and picturesque seaside resort in 1970s France, their marriage in apparent crisis. As they spend time with fellow travelers, including young newlyweds Lea and François, and village locals Michel and Patrice, the couple begins to come to terms with unresolved issues in their own lives.
Not since 2005’s ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ have Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie shared the screen, but anyone looking for their onscreen reunion to be anything like that entertaining trifle will be in for a rude shock. Sure, Pitt and Jolie still play two halves of an estranged married couple in ‘By the Sea’, but whereas the pair were madly in love with each other previously, they are here stuck in a loveless union for reasons that are revealed gradually – and by that, we mean very, very slowly. Indeed, it is only right at the end of a painfully meandering two hours that we are told just what landed the couple in their current state of misery, though it is hardly a revelation that is worth the wait.
Except for that last quarter of an hour, Jolie tries to keep her audience in suspense detailing the monotony that has beset Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie) on their vacation at a picturesque seaside resort in Malta. Roland is a novelist trying to get over a bad case of writers’ block, and though their sojourn is ostensibly for him to work on his next book, it is also for him and Vanessa to try to work something out between them. Mostly though, Roland spends his days drinking at the hotel bar, making casual conversation with its owner Michel (Niels Arestrup) while failing to write; meanwhile, Vanessa reciprocates by staying in the room, laying in bed, staring at the sea, or sitting on the balcony with a cigarette in her hand. Oh yes, this is that kind of movie where good-looking people spend much of time doing absolutely nothing except looking gorgeous.
Their routine is somewhat broken with the arrival of a honeymooning French couple, Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), who check into the room adjacent to theirs. It is Vanessa who first discovers a small hole in the wall, which allows her to spy on their neighbours’ bedroom activities. Vanessa puts her husband’s fidelity to the test initially by cosying up to Lea and checking out his response, but pretty soon, both husband and wife take to watching Lea and Francois make out at night, their voyeurism (which Vanessa does acknowledge as slightly perverse) unexpectedly rekindling the spark of their mutual attraction.
There is an undeniably interesting conceit at play here – not simply a matter of live pornography, their newfound activity in fact allows them a bittersweet glimpse of their younger and happier selves, which in turn becomes an unlikely form of marital therapy. And yet, these psychological underpinnings are largely left unexplored; instead, Roland continues to suffer under the influence of alcohol and Vanessa continues her moping less on the balcony than in the bathtub, the only meaningful difference before and after the arrival of the young newlyweds being the fact that Roland and Vanessa now have dinner company on some of the nights.
Only in the last half hour does the film try to build up to something substantial, as Vanessa goes from being a passive observer to an active third person in the other couple’s marriage. There is a deeply disturbing psyche at work here, laid bare by Roland who confronts her with the truth of just what they have been trying the rest of the movie to escape from; unfortunately, it is by then too late to establish Roland and Vanessa as relatable or compelling figures, and the film as a result never quite finds the emotional centre it needs to make the couple’s woes more than superficial. The same can be said of the film as a whole, which is no less beautifully shot by cinematographer Christian Berger but is also no more a collection of postcard-pretty scenery, stylish wardrobes and Jolie’s distractingly omnipresent make-up.
Seeing how Jolie wrote, produced and directed this European art cinema wannabe, it is no wonder that some have speculated this film was the subject of her ruminations about her own marriage; and notwithstanding that she has since come out to deny it, one cannot quite dismiss a nagging suspicion that ‘By the Sea’ may be more personal than her previous two outings behind the camera. Yet even that bit of curiosity is unlikely to be enough to sustain one’s attention throughout an extremely languorous two hours, for which a good part is spent watching Jolie looking vapid – at least her husband Pitt seems to be genuinely trying, striving to find depth in his character despite how underwritten it is. And depending on how much you enjoy watching Pitt and Jolie-Pitt engage in some pseudo-emotional wringing, ‘By the Sea’ will either feel like a breeze or a bore.
(Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie-Pitt look as gorgeous here as they do in real life, but this 1970s-set European art cinema wannabe is just two hours of watching two pretty celebrities against a picturesque Malta seaside resort)
Review by Gabriel Chong