They spy on the honeymooning couple in the next room through a peephole in the wall. In fact, if it weren’t for the latter, hardly anything at all would happen in By the Sea, the kind of vanity project you don’t see much of anymore.
Ostensibly about a couple trying to work their way back from a deeply traumatic incident, the film was made in Malta on a bay that looks like it could be just around the bend from where Robert Altman shot Popeye, which might have served as a warning to the filmmakers and Universal. Met with a tepid response at the opening night of this year’s AFI Film Festival, this languid piece of would-be art cinema will prove once again that even the biggest names in the world won’t draw an audience to something that, in and of itself, has no reason for being.
The names in this case, of course, are Angelina Jolie Pitt, as she has now chosen to be billed, and Brad Pitt. After directing two films, including Unbroken last year, Jolie Pitt this time wrote the script and co-stars as well. She has also named her production company Jolie Pas, a sadly accurate choice.
To the catchy refrain of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourgh’s pop classic “Jane B.,” the stars’ characters Vanessa and Roland motor up windy Maltese roads in a cherry Citroen convertible at an unspecified time in the recent past before cell phones and when everyone smoked without compunction.
Without saying much, but more often than not saying it in French, they check into a lavish villa-style hotel overlooking a bay, whereupon Vanessa takes to her bed like some tragic 19th century heroine and Roland heads for the nearby cafe, where recently widowed patron Michel (Niels Arestrup) serves him constant booze and an occasional bite to eat while the American confronts writer’s block.
The couple has chosen this place as the spot to try to recover from whatever cold-cocked them, a blow that has rendered Vanessa an uncommunicative zombie and Roland creatively frozen. Recognizing that his wife will need plenty of time to re-engage with him and the real world, Roland is exceedingly patient, asking for nothing. When not sleeping, Vanessa sits out on the deck beholding the deep blue, but always fully made up, which is actually distracting. Sporting a blah haircut and moustache and aviator glasses, Pitt doesn’t look all that great here. He has a bit of a pasty facial cast, which one can hope is intentional because he’s playing a drunk. Jolie Pitt, on the other hand, always seems far too cosmeticized and accoutred, which doesn’t square with her character’s shuttered, zoned out existence.
Things perk up mildly with the arrival of cute French honeymooners Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Pouopard), whose constant bedroom activities provide Vanessa with her only distraction from the void. Although this development introduces a heavy element of voyeurism into the proceedings, it isn’t actually very exciting, not does it appear to connect with any fundamental psychological or sexual aspect of Vanessa’s personality; it just perks her up and raises an eyebrow.
The two couples socialize a bit—they go out for dinner and make a sailing outing–but there’s nothing that significantly breaks the usual routine of Vanessa remaining uncommunicative and Roland coming home drunk and usually respectful of her emotional paralysis and physical unapproachability.
With such flat-lining and repetitive scenes dominating, two hours is far too long to make an audience wait for a payoff that is hardly about to save the film from its own stasis and dramatic flatness. There is a pastel pleasure to the visual conjured by cinematographer Christian Berger, best known for his striking black-and-white work on Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, who used natural light enhanced by a series of reflectors. Add to this some strong musical passages courtesy of Gabriel Yared and you have some suggestions of mood and emotional activity.
As an old-school, hard-drinking, well-regarded American writer comfortable in Europe, Pitt cuts an outwardly Hemingwayesque figure but without the bluster and braggadocio; with more to work with, the actor could make something of a role like this. But Jolie Pitt is pretty tough to take here. Stripping away all signs of vanity, beginning with the constant heavy makeup, would have been a good start, followed by abandoning the studied posing and posturing, which seem alien to the suffering and grief that have overcome her character. There’s no catharsis at the end from the journey taken, just relief that it’s over.