Ten years ago Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt blasted their way to marital bliss in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" as assassins who rekindled their spark in battle. Reuniting on the big screen for the first time since then, in the 1970s-set "By the Sea," the most famous couple in the world has made a painfully tedious meditation on marriage with Jolie behind the camera, trading bullets and sexy chemistry for passive-aggressive barbs.
It’s a pity this lethargic Eurodrama is so woefully short on murder, even if flashes of overly obvious editing almost suggest something interesting might happen. A domestic paranoia-driven blood sacrifice, perhaps? A psycho dance party? Alas. Even the sex scenes are snoozers, despite the artful breast-baring that will surely get "By the Sea" some pervy notice.
Instead what "By the Sea" has in copious amounts are sweeping Mediterranean vistas, moody Brangelina sighing heavily in retro-designer duds, and a narrative strung together out of scenes from a miserable marriage. Despite Jolie’s best efforts she’s made what feels like the most depressing two-hour luxury perfume ad of all time. At least she wears her love for French and Italian cinema on her tailored sleeve.
Pitt and Jolie Pitt (as she’s credited) are Roland and Vanessa, married New Yorkers who arrive at a remote French-speaking Maltese island resort in a sporty convertible. They wind their way through the countryside to the sounds of Serge Gainsbourg’s greatest hits, the chill between them palpable. Roland and Vanessa exist impeccably dressed in creams and taupes and frowns and summer silks. The sunlight, captured beautifully by DP Christian Berger with hazy Instagram filter perfection, screams chic elegance as they saunter through the motions on what should be a restorative European getaway, silently annoying one another.
Morose marital malaise has seldom been captured with the Vogue photo shoot precision of Jolie Pitt’s beige-tinged palette, and on purely visual terms "By the Sea" is a feast dripping in expensive detail. Pitt and Jolie Pitt, arguably the Burton and Taylor of their generation, moon about desperately trying to pay homage to the masters of the Italian and French New Wave without realizing they’ve trapped themselves in a $10 million-budgeted mimicry.
Sparse on dialogue, the film hints ham-fistedly at Roland and Vanessa’s frosty relationship before the cracks in their strained relationship are made clear. Their first exchange is pregnant with a forced and familiar hostility that makes one more curious about the workings of the Pitt-Jolie marriage than whatever brought this dreary, scowling couple to the Mediterranean.
“I smell fish,” she declares, picking her way over the stone-strewn ground. “You might want to take your heels off, my darling,” he mutters. "By the Sea’s" cruelest move isn’t in the emotional daggers these two throw at one another as they wage war in tethered ball-and-chain unhappiness, but in how Jolie Pitt dangles the explanation for such misery in front of the viewer like a carrot only to yank it away time and again.
Part Hemingway, part Fitzgerald, Roland is a once-successful novelist with writer’s block who’s searching for his lost mojo. Problem is he’d rather pick up a drink than put pen to paper, abandoning the typewriter he sets up in front of their ocean vista in favor of getting tanked at the local seaside café with a wise local barkeep (Niels Arestrup). He’s also clearly running from Vanessa, his wife of 14 years and an ex-dancer who spends her days hiding in return from the world, draped dramatically across the furniture in their spacious apartment. She suffers from a dark affliction only she and Roland know about. She is an anxiety ridden, pill-popping boudoir ice queen drowning in silks and chiffon and tortured ennui.
“Are we ever going to talk about it?” he demands, making reference to this obscured episode from their shared traumatic past. (Spoiler alert: They don’t, at least not until nearly two hours of angsty exchanges and heavy sighs trudge by.)
Their repetitive days and nights receive a welcome jolt of new energy with the arrival of newlyweds Lea (Melanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) who move in next door and commence with energetic babymaking that thumps its way through the walls. Their loud French boning invades the silence of Vanessa’s self-indulgent emotional exile so much that she drops her book. That’s saying a lot for a film that stretches an eternity out of a slow zoom on a single tear on Jolie Pitt’s cheek as she sits on an empty bed, staring into the distance.
When Vanessa finds a hidden hole in the wall and starts spying on the neighbors, her frigid world is finally rocked again by pangs of human emotion—curiosity, lust, envy, resentment. And when Roland discovers her secret and starts joining in on the peeping, their shared voyeuristic hobby injects their marriage and the film with new energy as the amorous French remind the Americans how it’s done. But as they grow closer to the friendly couple, their secret game also leads to a sequence of events that triggers a cathartic, if deeply unsatisfying, confrontation and Jolie Pitt’s limitations as an auteur are laid bare.
In her third feature film as a director Jolie Pitt’s taken on full creative roles, and more power to the women who can do it all: Writer, director, star, producer. But while she directs her husband to a full bodied, bleeding heart performance as a man frustrated as a husband and an artist, she miscasts herself as the rigid yet broken Vanessa, straining with great effort for an elusive wide-eyed fragility she can’t quite find.
Some particularly awkward lines of dialogue don’t help, nor does the character’s sharp, clichéd detour toward implied mental illness. In one scene Vanessa takes a walk along the cliffs and contemplates throwing herself into the raging blue waters below; minutes later she arrives home dripping from the sea and whispers to a horrified Roland: “Now my outsides match my insides.”
Sex plays such a significant and fluctuating role in "By the Sea" that it’s also a shame its most pivotal carnal moment is obscured in the editing. An encounter in a bathtub turns into a wasted opportunity to better define Roland and Vanessa’s shifting emotional states, but while Jolie Pitt is unafraid to show the ugliness of their domestic squabbles, she seems reluctant to go full European in this brief erotic encounter. There’s more intention in the design of Vanessa’s tear-streaked mascara and eyeliner than the most intimately sensual scene these two share.
More disappointing, if not wholly infuriating, is how "By the Sea" ultimately traces Roland and Vanessa’s grief to one deep, dark womanly secret. It’s a maddeningly regressive twist straight out of the very past that Jolie Pitt is trying to conjure and its causal implications are worth a more contemporary debate. The characters of "By the Sea" at least get to cope by downing endless cocktails, pints, and bottles of wine. Unless you’re packing your own covert flask to the theater, you won’t be so lucky.