Written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt
Starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt
The Pitt’s much anticipated “vanity project” about a married couple in crisis has strong similarities to the wrenching domestic drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia by way of Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci and Jean Luc Godard. Or that’s what it has in its head.
By the Sea is an exploration of passion set adrift with the look and feel of art films from the seventies that never quite gels. Even so its beautiful to look at, like a series of still life paintings.
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are Roland and Vanessa, married eighteen years, no children, a writer and a former dancer and appear to be on a rocky road. They’re in a picturesque seaside village in France (played by Malta) stashed in a hotel overlooking a rocky seaside.
He’s trying to write a novel with little success. He’s drinking hard. His heart’s not in the work because he’s distracted by Vanessa. He’s on high alert because she’s reaching a tipping point of some sort.
Vanessa lies in bed, a posed and magnificent pile of lace and silk and hair, but she seems ready to explode. Something simmers below the surface that’s dangerous and violent – they could rush at one other for sex or murder. Instead, they circle their carefully staked out territories in an increasingly claustrophobic room.
Her face is expressionless and flat, stripped of connection and life but her eyes are wild. A cold remove does little to masquerade a roiling interior. Her words are off kilter, so mundane and rote and domestic considering the extraordinary tension between them.
She berates him for drinking but offers him drink after drink. What is going through her head? And his? They are unbalanced and unable to right themselves.
A newlywed couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) take the room next door, uncomfortably close for Vanessa’s’ taste. However her discovery of a peephole overlooking their bed offers Vanessa and Roland the chance of a marital reboot.
Vanessa accuses Roland of wanting sex with the woman, he doesn’t, she comes close to sleeping with the husband and Roland stops her. He figures she wants to drive him away so she can perhaps do away with herself and end the misery.
She walks cobbled roads in high heels, a testament to, what? – her iron will, reverence for beauty, self-destruction? It’s a telling detail. This woman is strong. So is her apparent emotional fragility an act, an illness or surrender.
There are real world reasons for her odd behaviour as it happens and for Roland’s wariness. His character is dominated by hers; his needs are set aside in service of Vanessa’s ego. And so it goes for more than two hours.
The art direction and design is top notch. Vanessa’s gorgeous wardrobe is pure seventies elegant chic, from superb silk blouses and pencil skirts to frothy negligees and classic handbags. It’s the most sensational cinema wardrobe since Jolie Pitt appeared in The Tourist.
But it doesn’t make a good movie. It’s a shame because we know what they’re going for, that French Italian new wave idiom but they never get there. It approaches the artistic heights, but no cigar.
It’s a beautifully crafted piece of eye candy. Even the beautiful natural environment, the ocean and the sun while barely acknowledged in the dialogue, are also subservient to the woman.