Much of my time watching By The Sea was spent trying to imagine what Brad and Angelina Jolie-Pitt could possibly be thinking when they wrote, directed and produced this film. It is so void of content and so filled with art house pretense that it plays as parody, though I doubt that was the intention.
To briefly summarize: Roland (Pitt) is a blocked writer having some unstated issue with wife, Vanessa (Jolie-Pitt). As the film opens they are driving in their sports convertible up a winding seaside road in a shot we’ve seen in a dozen French romantic comedies. They arrive at a resort high above the sea in Malta. It is the 1970s. So far so good, but logic and sense begin to crumble.
They meet a couple of newlyweds Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) and soon are spending inordinate amounts of time staring at the younger couple’s lovemaking through a conspicuous hole the wall of their adjacent room. The newlyweds, however, never seem to notice this opening the size of a large eyeball. Two locals in a nearby restaurant bar, Michel (Niels Arestrup) and Patrice (Richard Bohringer.), who add a faux French flavor are of little significance to the non-plot. Much of the two hours is spent gazing at two of the world’s biggest movie stars portentously staring at the horizon, lighting cigarettes, lying clothed in the sun, drinking, bickering, occasionally bathing together, and of course gazing through that symbolic hole in the wall. As waited for a single piece of dialogue that was either clever, or least not at least not self-consciously vapid, I pondered why the couples’ intentions could possibly be.
Theory One: The film is a stylishly shot self-reflexive post-modern take on celebrity marriage. The Pitts are constantly being gazed at and that maybe affects the marriage. They are desirable objects and that puts a twist of jealously into the relationship. Jolie’s just-up-to-the nipples bathtub scenes are a coy commentary on the viewers slavering need for the star to exploit her own beauty. She is toying with us through the camp lens of 60’s iconography. When Roland leaps into the bathtub fully clothed is the intention wry parody? It’s more eyerolling than comedy. He also manages, by the end of the film, to have completed a thick perfectly typed manuscript called, of course, By The Sea, though he rarely appears to be writing, which doesn't matter because there is no indication how long anyone has been at this resort. Additionally, Vanessa never reads so much as a newspaper. That accounts for her lack of personality. Perhaps that blank mask of a face the actress wears is commenting on the artifice of filmmaking. And maybe that large finished novel is a not just an impossibility, but a reference to the film itself being completed without rhyme or reason.
Theory Two: The couple actually is working out marriage issues. Angelina Jolie has the clout to produce a movie and pull her husband on board. The movie is a kind of couples’ therapy. I can’t pretend to know the first thing about the pressures of being fabulously rich, famous and glamorous, but it makes sense as film therapy with the unbearable arguments the couple has on screen that say nothing and lead nowhere. There is even a (sort-of) surprise ending that “explains everything”. This “secret” is terribly anti-climactic. It certainly does not warrant two hours of abstract flashes of abstract body parts, of the couple staring into space, or gazing meaningfully at one another. If this is a personal story it is unfortunate that the writing is at the level of college melodrama.
Theory Three: This is an act of hubris. Jolie has a vision, can do what she wants, but has seriously overreached. She is not Claude Lelouche or Eric Rohmer, and certainly no Michael Heneke (whose cinematographer Christian Berger makes it all look great). In the hands of these directors meditative does not mean boring, it becomes poetry. Abstract ideas are not honed through laborious, pretentious poses, and mundane dialogue. Art films do not generally cost $27 million dollars and shoot in Malta. The director had a decent collaboration last year with her film Unbroken. Given her draw as an actress she must have real clout. Last years breach of security and of email at Sony Pictures had a “powerful movie producer” calling actress Angelina Jolie a “minimally talented spoiled brat.” I’ll pretend I didn't hear that. I like her politics and her intentions. Brad Pitt’s reputation as both actor and as a producer grow stronger each year.
Jolie’s art house ‘personal film’ has been given limited release for a reason. With all the savvy of a multi-million dollar student film it is clear there are some things money just cannot buy.