Review: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are beautiful disasters in ‘By The Sea’

When I was in my mid-to-late teens and movie crazy, there was a period where I fell in love with European art films and convinced myself that I needed to move to France so I could smoke and think constantly about death and have a beautiful detached girlfriend who would join me as we robbed banks, drank coffee, and spoke in magnificent ellipses. Looking at the sun-drenched coasts of France and Italy and Spain, I ached to someday go to those places so I could stand around and be morose and hopefully look half as good as those people did while doing so.

My guess is that many audiences will attend “By The Sea” hoping to learn something about the real relationship between the uber-famous husband and wife who star in the movie, but that's a sucker's game. This isn't a documentary, and they're not playing themselves. Instead, “By The Sea” feels to me like Angelina Jolie Pitt (as she's billed here) grew up crazy in love with those same movies about doomed romances and beautiful people, and she decided to make one of her own. It's probably a good thing that she warmed up with the bombastic might of “Unbroken” and the uneven earnestness of “In The Land Of Blood and Honey,” because this time, she's working in a very subtle mode, and it's the most delicate work she's done so far.

It's also her best film as a director. While I didn't love everything about “By The Sea,” there is much to like if you're in the right mood. This is a film that only gives you the barest hint of where you're heading, and because it's not constantly telegraphing what you're supposed to think or feel in each moment, and because the smallest of gestures or silences are the things that matter most here, it requires something from the viewer. This is a film where you don't really know what characters are talking around until very late in the film, and much of how you feel about the movie will depend on how you feel about the big reveal.

Roland (Brad Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) are Americans wandering through Europe, hoping to outrun the grief that they carry between them like a physical object. Grief over what, though? And how exactly are they supposed to pick up and carry on after whatever it was happened?

Roland's a novelist, and his writing has stopped in favor of some fairly aggressive drinking. Vanessa has just plain stopped, drifting through each day like a ghost, barely there when she speaks, unable to stand the touch of Roland's hands. They find a small unnamed town in France and check into a small hotel. It's a beautiful little town, and from the time I've spent in France, this is how I imagine life along that southern coast, so slow and quiet and warm.

Supposedly, Roland is going to use their time in town to get back to work, but the truth is that both of them have healing to do. The question seems to be whether they're going to be able to help each other do that healing or if they're going to have to separate to start to return to normal. At first, it's just about the two of them, but when a young honeymooning couple checks into the room next door, things begin to change, and both Roland and Vanessa find themselves pushed in ways they never expected.

Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) seem to represent a happiness that Roland and Vanessa have lost, and Vanessa finds herself curious about them. That curiosity is stoked when she finds a small hole in the wall that allows her to see into their room, and she begins to vicariously enjoy the youthful giddy energy between the lovers, watching more and more of them as they make love and talk, then eventually works her way into their lives, befriending Lea. Roland worries that this is a dangerous game, but when he starts to see signs of the old Vanessa, he joins her, and things begin one big final spiral… but in which direction?

Both of the Pitt Jolies do very good work in the film, and so many of the scenes are between the two of them and no one else that it lives or dies on the strength of what they do. Angelina in particular seems very comfortable playing this sort of “just about to collapse” emotional state. You get the feeling watching her that she is always on the verge of crawling right out of her own skin, even when she's almost totally still. What I like most about his work is the gentle way Roland keeps trying to find a way past Nessa's defenses, no matter how hard she works to push him away.

Gabriel Yared's score is lush and emotional, and longtime Michael Haneke collaborator Christian Berger shoots the film with a painter's palette and a love of light. It's a handsomely made film, and for the most part, I enjoyed the way the film unfolds. It is, ultimately, a long way to go for a very small payoff, but that's okay. It's a small film, and the best thing I can say about it is that it feels far more controlled than Jolie's first two films. It's just a hard film to categorize easily. It sounds far sexier, just based on the synopsis, than it actually plays, though, so hopefully people aren't sold the wrong movie. For those in the mood for a throwback to the doomed romanticism of mid'60s art films, this feels like about as sincere an homage as anyone could produce.

“By The Sea” is in theaters Friday.