BY THE SEA * * 1 / 2
Starring Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud and Niels Arestrup. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt.
A curious and at times quite affecting oddity, the third film directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt feels more like a first feature, fumbling with personal obsessions and rife with the anxiety of influence. A million miles from her stodgy, Oscar-bait adaptation of Unbroken, By The Sea is an uneven, artsy-fartsy lunge at profundity that doesn’t really add up in the end, but I found it occasionally thrilling all the same. The World’s Most Famous Couple crawls way, way out on an artistic limb with this one, and those screams you hear are thousands of Us Weekly readers trying to process an Antonioni homage.
Positively drunk on the languors of 1960’s Euro art-house cinema, the film stars Brangelina as Roland and Vanessa Bertrand, an expat American couple shacking up at a seaside hotel in the South of France. She used to be a dancer but says she got too old. He still claims to be a writer but mostly he just drinks. Recovering from a rather annoyingly unexplained tragedy, the two don’t speak to each other much and when they do it’s hardly pleasant. Vanessa spends her time draped across the furniture in impossibly gorgeous tableaux of ennui, chain-smoking and silently weeping through her runny mascara. Roland hangs out all day at a local café, pretending to work on his new book while quietly getting smashed.
This is the first time Jolie Pitt has directed herself, and she seems to understand her screen persona in a way too few filmmakers do. As an actress Angelina’s always best at playing captivating abstractions, and here she wisely remains just out of reach. Her husband brings his full puppy-dog charm to bear as a blotto sad-sack. A far better actor than he’s often given credit for, Pitt lets us see Roland’s Hemingway fantasies slipping away as his creativity sputters and the woman he loves recoils from his touch.
But things perk up upon the arrival of two randy newlyweds (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) next door. They get even more exciting with the accidental discovery of a peephole in the Bertrand’s hotel room wall, from which Vanessa and Roland can see the hot young couple screwing. By The Sea’s midsection crackles with eroticism and mischief, thawing out our protagonists’ icy relationship as they crouch together watching, giddy and enthralled. “Are we pervs?” Pitt wonders, sharing a laugh with his wife for the first time in far too long.
There’s a droll visual wit at work — our couple eating elaborate picnic meals while parked on the floor by the peephole, waiting for their neighbors to get it on. Eventually Roland and Vanessa follow suit, and By The Sea becomes a weirdly reflexive hall of mirrors. After all, here we were watching a movie about two miserable people who get off by spying on a beautiful couple fucking, but they’re played by a super-famous, beautiful real-life couple that we’re currently watching splash around in a bathtub. So who exactly are the voyeurs?
Much less interesting is that aforementioned, laboriously hinted-about tragedy that must, alas, eventually be explained in a hugely anticlimactic fashion that all but derails the picture. (If you’ve seen Raising Arizona recently it will probably provoke a bad, unintentional laugh.) In general, Jolie Pitt’s evocative compositions are far more assured than her tin-eared dialogue – the bluntly-stated themes go down easier whenever the characters are speaking French. (Pretension always plays better in subtitles; cf. the clunky English in Gaspar Noe’s recently released Love.)
Admittedly, By The Sea is exactly the kind of wounded, personal project that brings out my most overprotective tendencies. I adore that the Pitts parlayed their clout into making the studio behind Minions and Jurassic World bankroll a sexually explicit, dysfunctional Liz and Dick romp by way of La Notte. (Some cunty early reviews from the cinema illiterate also had me rooting for it sight unseen.) Jolie Pitt takes a lot of big swings and quite a few of them don’t connect, but the film is exciting to watch because it comes from someplace daring and real. I can’t wait to see what she does next.