By the Sea (2015) / Drama-Romance
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexuality, nudity, and language
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup, Richard Bohringer
Director: Angelina Jolie
Screenplay: Angelina Jolie
Review published December 3, 2015
Angelina Jolie (Maleficent, The Tourist) continues her transition from photogenic lead actress to film auteur (she purports that this will be her last performance in front of the camera), but stumbles with By the Sea, despite beautiful people in scenic places shot in gorgeous ways, which is all the movie really has going for it. It's a throwback film of sorts, set in the appropriate era (the 1970s), to the kinds of long, contemplative mood pieces that were popular mostly in Europe, full of characters experiencing ennui in marriage and their state growing older in general, caught in a life rut that they see no escape from, longing to transcend into happiness again, but they are too entrenched in the boredom of their current station.
Jolie, playing depressive and bored housewife Vanessa, casts her real-life husband Brad Pitt (Fury, The Counselor) as her on-screen husband Roland, a struggling novelist. The American couple have been unhappy for some time, so they make their escape to a secluded French seaside hotel (filmed in Malta). While Vanessa takes to mostly lying around the hotel room reading, smoking and pill popping her day away, Roland seeks comfort in hard drinking at a local tavern. The marriage is completely stagnant, but soon sparks to life when they encounter a couple of newlyweds in the hotel room next door, Francois (Poupaud, Speed Racer) and Lea (Laurent, Aloft), with whom they both find a sort of physical attraction, and perhaps envy for being happy in this early state of their marriage. Vanessa discovers a peephole in the wall from which she can observe this passionate pair frolicking in their physical enjoyment of each other, while also planting suggestions in Roland of him wanting to have an affair with Lea, while she desires Francois for a rendezvous.
One problem with Jolie's choices in the film is to always keep her characters looking glamorous, even when distraught -- even when just waking up or going to bed -- as Vanessa, who rarely leaves the hotel room and isn't expecting company always gives herself a full make-over with oodles of eye shadow and fake eyelashes. Despite being a married couple, and a handsome one at that, there's not much of interest in the interplay between Jolie and Pitt, perhaps because they're playing such miserable people, or perhaps because their characters are written with few, if any, sympathetic human traits to make them relatable. The best part of the movie comes when Roland joins in on Vanessa's persistent voyeurism of the amorous couple next door, sensing a rekindling of a passion he hasn't seen on her face in many years, hoping that this bit of fantasizing will bring the woman he fell in love with back in his arms. Alas, it's a story thread with possibility that goes not much of anywhere interesting, as Jolie's story keeps hitting the same notes in the same ways before it finally ends with only shrug from most audiences to show for it.
At just over two hours in length, it's a slog of a movie to get through, as we watch a joyless marriage gasp for air until we find out well toward the end of the film the root of all of the angst, and it's not revelatory to them as people to endure such a methodical and arduous build-up. As with the couple at the heart of this film, you'll likely have retreated to By the Sea hoping to feel rejuvenation at one of the world's most beautiful couples amid one of the world's most beautiful places, but you will likely find yourself searching for a peephole of your own to peer through, hoping you can peek into the movie playing on the theater screen next door, desperately seeking to find a more enjoyable and interesting movie to follow than this one.
©2015 Vince Leo