Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent and Niels Arestrup
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release date: December 11th
Movie star vanity projects have a poor reputation to say the least. But to be fair, for every The Postman or Battlefield Earth, we get the odd Play Misty for Me or Braveheart. By the Sea was made with the best of intentions – a deadly serious domestic drama about a marriage in turmoil. But the seaside story remains stuck in shallow waters.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play a glamorous American couple taking a vacation in a sleepy little village in the South of France. Their marriage has deteriorated over the years, and she has become increasingly melancholic while he enjoys his drink.
Both actors are utterly iconic, and tackle their roles with different degrees of success.
Jolie’s Vanessa is quietly morose, which is not a very cinematic condition. Oftentimes we’re just watching her (in long shots!) staring out to sea or wandering the village. It’s the sort of theme and character that would be better suited to a literary novel than a film and the actress is stranded by her role. Jolie has gotten so thin, incidentally, that she looks like a Thunderbirds marionette.
Pitt fares better in a showier role as Roland, a hard-drinking washed-up writer. He conveys intelligence, charm, anger and frustration effectively. And his scenes in the café bar with local Niels Arestrup are by far the most effective in the film. I could’ve watched a play or film with just those two characters talking about life and marriage. Arestrup is a pleasure to watch – so naturalistic. And Melanie Laurent (as the woman in a younger couple) is likable and charming too.
It’s a thematically ambitious film, and a very personal one, but it doesn’t quite scan. I like the theme of a couple meeting people at other stages of their romantic lives; a sad widower who had a long, fabulous marriage (Arestrup) and a sexy, younger couple in the first throes of lust and love.
The period setting (of the early 1970s) makes sense: It’s elegant, and people were more isolated before wifi and mobile phones. It’s a breathtaking location – a tiny seaside resort as yet untouched by throngs of tourists. And the glamorous, old-fashioned hotel is a perfect gilded cage for Vanessa.
To be fair, this is a very ambitious film and one that might not have been made without Jolie’s clout. Conversely, maybe if it was made by a less powerful director, producers might have insisted on a draft from another scriptwriter (Jolie wrote it on her own) and it might not have been half an hour too long.
Jolie (as director) is clearly influenced by the giants of European cinema: There’s the obsession with objects and minutiae of Polanksi; the voyeurism of Antonioni; some shots borrowed from Bertollucci; similar themes to films by Bergman and Mike Nichols (respectively Scenes from a Marriage and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?).
While Jolie doesn’t have the psychological depth of those filmmakers, at least she’s borrowing from the best. By the Sea is a beautiful looking, thematically ambitious, but ultimately dull and insubstantial film: The very definition of a noble failure.