‘By the Sea’
Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Stars: Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt
3 (out of 5) Globes
In 2015, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s art film “By the Sea” has more in common with the stray evangelical dramas occasionally dropped into 3,000 theaters than it does any other mainstream release. The multiplex landscape has been homogenized into little but spectacles and franchises. That leaves the actress-filmmaker’s deeply personal (which is not to say strictly autobiographical) missive easy to overrate, because it’s different, as well as easy to underrate, because it’s different. It’s thrilling, if you will, to see something this ponderous, this brooding, this slow volleying for the same dollars that could be spent on “Spectre.” Where that film has everything, this has next-to-nothing. (Although both have dynamite scenery and vacation attire.)
The novelty of “By the Sea” — which is no less than a naked attempt to ape ’60s French and Italian movies, especially those, like “Contempt” and “La Notte,” about bad relationships — may quickly wear off. But what doesn’t wear off, either annoyingly or excitingly, depending on who you are, is whether or not it’s good. Has Jolie Pitt (as she's cumbersomely billed herself) made a flawed but noble film or one that’s just flawed? The answer may go back and forth, depending on the scene. But underneath the stilted dialogue and the sometimes dodgy, sometimes close-enough attempts at capturing ennui (or, as they say, Antoniennui) is an overly serious film worth taking seriously.
The apparently very happy Jolie Pitts play the very unhappy Vanessa and Roland. It’s an undisclosed time, maybe the ’60s, maybe the early ’70s, and they arrive — after a silent, Serge Gainsbourg-/Jane Birkin-backed drive in their swanky convertible — in a hotel in seaside France. (Actually it’s Gozo Island off of Italy.) He needs to write, but he spends most of his days fall-down drunk. She prefers to stay in and stand or sit or lean in languorous poses, sometimes with cool oversized glasses. It seems like all their problems will be thrown into even sharper relief by the young, spunky, usually barely clothed (if that) newlyweds (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) who shack up next door.
Eventually a fun (and sometimes intentionally funny) kink is introduced into their lives: Vanessa happens upon a peephole into their frisky neighbors' boudoir. Soon Roland is joining her, the two bonding and knocking back wine as they take turns spying, even getting their victims drunk so the sex will get even better (or just pass out). It’s a pretty hooky hook in a film that otherwise coasts on indulging in boredom and stasis and repetition — on shots of Jolie Pitt pouting or walking about rocks, or lengthy verbal sparring bouts that are lousy with dialogue that reads better than it sounds, even if it does sound good in French. (When our stars switch languages and the subtitles pop up, the movie gets 10 times better.)
There’s also a secret to contend with — some mystery something-or-other that has caused a fracture in their relationship, a cat just waiting to leap, claws first, out of the bag. Vanessa can’t bear to be touched by Roland; he occasionally refers to some event and looks at her puppy eyes as she stares pained into the distance. When their plaint is revealed, it may seem almost minor, anticlimactic even. But the relative ordinariness of its nature is also what makes it moving and what makes the movie stronger.
To be annoyingly cagey and un-spoiler-y about it, “By the Sea” turns out to be an empathetic study of womanhood, and of being defined by one’s body.We’re told early on that Vanessa was once a dancer, and now she’s retired and depressed and does little but lie around. (We’re also told Roland used to be not just a great writer but, as he puts it, “a f—ing writer,” though we know he’ll stage a climactic comeback, complete with a wincingly obvious finale right out of a freshman year student film.) This comes from an actress often reduced to her looks who has claimed this is her farewell to acting, who wants to be reborn as a filmmaker. She wants to be taken seriously, but she's not just an actor switching to director but Angelina Jolie Pitt, megastar, and a woman in an industry and in a medium still riddled with casual sexism. Understanding it as a film about the unease of being defined and limited by one’s body and gender might not atone for every last bit of stumbling about, but it makes it more than something that can be reduced to the usual mainstream-audience-on-art-film snickering.