When one of my co-workers asked me to tell him what Angelina Jolie's By the Sea was like, I told him that it felt sort of like a combination of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and a Michelangelo Antonioni film.
“So, boring,” he replied.
“No!” I said. “Well... I mean, a little. But it's good!”
The film details a melancholy chapter in the life of a married couple. Roland (Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life) is an American novelist who has been struck with a serious case of writer's block. Vanessa (Angelina Jolie, Salt) is still attempting to cope with some sort of unspecified recent trauma. They decide to get away for a little while, hoping that a change of scenery will do both of them some good. They rent a hotel room in a quiet seaside town in France, and Roland seems to hope that the romantic setting will reignite the spark in their marriage (whatever happened to Vanessa has left her uninterested in sex – Roland tries to be understanding, but this has clearly been going on for some time).
Roland still struggles to write, and Vanessa still struggles to do much of anything. Even so, they do manage to make friends with some of the locals, including a genial bartender (Niels Arestrup, War Horse) and the pair of young newlyweds (Melanie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds and Melvil Poupaud, 44 Inch Chest) staying in the room next door. Eventually, Vanessa and Roland discover a small hole in the wall that allows them to spy on the younger couple's frequent... er, coupling. A series of psychological games begin to emerge from this discovery, as Vanessa begins testing the boundaries of Roland's fidelity and finding subtle ways to interfere with the younger couple's blissful honeymoon.
By my reckoning, By the Sea is a good twenty minutes longer than it needs to be (it's not that things move too slowly, it's that too many scenes feel like variations on the same basic idea), but it's a strikingly unique and personal effort from a director whose earlier work seemed competent but largely anonymous. This is nearly a 180-degree turn from the audience-friendly uplift of Unbroken, instead offering a quiet-but-rewarding riff on old European art films. Though Jolie (billing herself as Angelina Jolie Pitt) doesn't have Antonioni's subtlety when it comes to dialogue (it takes a little while to get used to the stilted-but-direct manner in which the characters address each other – initially a distraction, but eventually an integral part of the film's intriguing tone), she's awfully good at capturing the sort of ennui the films that inspired her thrive on.
While it might be easy to assume that Jolie is striking a particular sort of enigmatic cinematic pose in an attempt to earn critical admiration, it quickly becomes clear that By the Sea actually has something urgent to say. The film is generous with its revelations during the third act, providing a clear explanation for why these people act the way they act and how this marriage reached such a bitter, empty stage. Here, the film also reveals the depth of its empathy, and a movie that had seemed moody and detached quickly (but credibly) becomes something heartfelt.
The performances from the two leads are engaging and complex, revealing new layers as the movie proceeds. Right off the bat, the characters are easy to define: Jolie is lazy and acidic, Pitt is directionless and bitter. Still, there are half-attempts at politeness and even sweetness – a faint echo of better days, perhaps, or maybe the hope that there's something left worth preserving. It's hard to deny the extra element of power that comes from our knowledge that Pitt and Jolie are married in real life, and one can't help but speculate about how much of their own marriage has been baked into this cinematic pie. Clearly, they're happier than these people are... right?
By the Sea isn't a great movie – it's artful and clumsy in roughly equal measure, and it doesn't give enough depth to its supporting characters – but it's certainly not a conventional or uninvolving flick. Many people have labeled the movie a “vanity project,” which is the term that gets thrown around whenever high-profile actors cast themselves in risky, original films (use of the term multiplies when the project struggles at the box office, which is what happened in this case). If that's the case, I'd like to see more vanity projects from Jolie. For the first time, we're seeing her as a director who has a real visual sensibility, a strong sense of how to use herself effectively onscreen (and her husband, for that matter) and has found a way to thoughtfully modernize the techniques of '60s arthouse cinema. Here's hoping she continues to try new things.
By the Sea
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Year: 2015