Depression and marital dysfunction look awfully, awfully pretty in By the Sea, a film set on the tranquil French coast, bathed in sun-dappled light and made all the more handsome by its two stars, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt, the later of whom also wrote and directed the film. Unfortunately, once one gets past the surface allure of this homage to ’70s arthouse cinema, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s not much substance to it. It’s a movie where every pause is long and every line of dialogue is supposed to carry great meaning, but ultimately sounds weighed down by excess pretension.
This is Jolie Pitt’s third directorial effort, but only the second time she and Pitt have starred opposite each another. Their first shared billing came in 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the rom-com thriller that kicked off their offscreen romance and cast them as a bored husband and wife who reignite their spark after realizing they’re both undercover assassins. In By the Sea, the two again play disenchanted spouses, but while the heat between them in Mr. and Mrs. Smith was palpable, here it is intentionally set on the lowest, slowest of flames.
Pitt plays Roland, a writer who brings his typewriter to a tiny seaside hotel with the intent of tapping out a novel, but winds up spending most of his time racking up bar tabs instead of a word count. Meanwhile, his wife Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) spends her days aimlessly and sadly lounging around in red-carpet-ready nightgowns. She’s clearly depressed, but in the way that only impossibly gorgeous people get depressed in movies; she cries and stares into space a lot, but somehow musters the energy to apply a lush set of false eyelashes every day.
It’s clear that something has caused this relationship to rupture, and while it’s easy enough to guess what it might be, By the Sea takes for-ever to explain what that something is. (“Are we ever going to talk about it?” Roland says to Vanessa about 30 to 45 minutes into the film. At which point I wrote in my notes: “WELL, ARE YOU?”) In the meantime, much attention is focused on a small hole in the wall of the couple’s hotel suite that allows them to peek into the room next door, which is occupied by the sexually ravenous newlyweds Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud). At first, only Vanessa plays the role of Peeping Tom, but eventually Roland joins her, and their game of eye-spy continues even as they begin to forge a friendship with the younger couple.
Watching one of the most scrutinized couples in Hollywood snooping so brazenly on another man and woman is a deliciously meta conceit, and one that the image-savvy Jolie Pitt surely realized would work on multiple levels. The scene where Roland and Vanessa turn their shared stares on the conjoined naked bodies next door — stifling their giggles so as not to get caught — is one of the few moments in the movie that feels organic and natural, letting in some much-needed light and air.
Vanessa eventually reveals that she used to be a dancer, which may explain why Jolie Pitt’s performance often feels more like a series of poses than an actual lived-in portrayal. Pitt benefits from playing the messier, more open of the two characters, which gives him the latitude to relax in a way that Jolie Pitt consciously chooses not to, in a way that feels overly mannered.
As a director, working alongside Oscar-nominated cinematographer and frequent Michael Haneke collaborator Christian Berger, Jolie demonstrates a flair for striking imagery. At one point, as Vanessa teeters on the rocks by the water, seemingly on the verge of diving in, her face is completely swallowed up by the massive brim of her hat, making her look like she’s quite literally in the bell jar. But any visual poetry is often obscured by the film’s excruciatingly slow pace. Too often, after taking the sweetest of sweet times with a scene, Jolie cuts away just when it seems like something interesting might happen. When Lea comes over to play cards with Vanessa, and Roland unexpectedly comes home, he sits down to join the two women. We’re suddenly eager to see how these three will finally handle being in each other’s presence. Then — whip! — it’s on to the next scene. It’s as if the whole movie is focused on what’s in parentheses instead of the actual text.
A film starring two of the biggest movie stars on the planet playing husband and wife not long after they finally tied the knot seems like the sort of film that should get a major push from its distributor, Universal. Instead, By the Sea is rolling out in a select few theaters, with reps at Universal insisting it was always intended to be “a specialty title.” It’s an odd decision, one that, just like that hole in Roland’s and Vanessa’s hotel, gives moviegoers the chance to observe Pitt and Jolie Pitt, but only through the tiniest possible window. Maybe the studio knows that even the electric rush that comes from clandestinely gazing on a beautiful couple wears off after a while. In By the Sea, it certainly fades much faster than it should.