In “By the Sea,” when Roland and Vanessa arrive at the picturesque seaside hotel in France where they have come to relax and rejuvenate, the first thing out of Vanessa’s mouth is a complaint: “I smell fish.” Upon checking into their room, she’s annoyed: “What’s that sound?” (It’s the sea, Roland tells her.) This vacation is going to be miserable for both of them, isn’t it? And we’re along for the ride, aren’t we?
Take a deep breath and settle in, folks. This is going to be rough.
Roland and Vanessa are played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt (as she’s credited here), and Jolie wrote and directed the film. There’s immediate interest when one of the most famous married couples in the world plays a married couple in a movie, especially if the fictional spouses’ relationship is troubled, and especially if one of the real spouses wrote and directed it. Can we suss out the details of Brangelina’s marriage by reading between the lines? What does Jennifer Aniston think??
But watching the film, you don’t get any sense of Jolie trying to capitalize on what could be perceived as a gimmick. If anything, the slow-boiling, exceedingly dry drama discourages voyeurism — first by including a subplot that literally discourages voyeurism, and second by being so dull that anyone who follows Brangelina in the tabloids is bound to be disappointed by the lack of dirt.
Set in the 1970s, when adult dramas like this, especially European ones, were au courant (witness the retro Universal logo at the beginning), “By the Sea” has our 40-something married couple visiting this quaint resort so that Roland, a novelist, can write and drink, while Vanessa, a former dancer, mopes. She is languid and depressed, full of what the French call ennui. We come to understand that Roland and Vanessa have endured something traumatic, and that Vanessa has not recovered from it. I spoil nothing in telling you that if you are hoping this will turn out to be something interesting, or something other than what you expect it to be, well, it’s not that kind of movie.
The kind of movie it is, is the kind where both spouses give each other withering looks and make references to vague jealousies; talk around subjects without talking about them directly; and find common ground by spying on the couple next door. They’re newlyweds on their honeymoon, and Vanessa finds a hole in the wall that lets her peep at them. Roland finds it, too, and it becomes something they can share.
But again: do not be misled into thinking that there will be intrigue or mystery. It’s not that kind of movie.
Jolie’s performance in front of the camera is raw and mostly stripped of vanity. Her character is icy and difficult, and her behavior is not endearing. Pitt is good, too, balancing his wife’s grief with his own mixture of pity and exhaustion.
But they’re both undone by Jolie’s indulgent work behind the camera. The film drags at a glacial pace, leading to an unsatisfying non-climax and the feeling that you’ve wasted two hours (two hours that should have been 90 minutes, I might add). We’re pulled into a maelstrom of negative emotions, but denied the catharsis (or even an outstanding depiction of misery) that would make it worthwhile. If it had been made by people who weren’t international celebrities, it would have played at a film festival and then disappeared, never to be heard from again.
C- (2 hrs., 2 min.; )