By the Sea, the third directorial effort by Angelina Jolie, feels like nothing more than a self-indulgent vanity project. I went into this film expecting something more. As flawed as her other two films are, I at least recognized her well-intentioned depictions of difficult subject matter. I always give actors turned directors credit whenever they choose to only stay behind the camera. By stepping in front of the camera alongside husband Brad Pitt, Jolie has crafted a tedious exercise in self-absorbed filmmaking. The deliberate pacing and dull plotting offset any moments of visual beauty. By the Sea could very signal the end of the celebrity vanity project.
Set along the French coastline during the 1970s, the real life couple portray a married couple in a spiral. Having been married for 14 years, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) arrive at a hotel in Malta. He’s a failed writer wallowing in booze and she’s a former dancer plagued by a pill addiction. Vanessa has endured some sort of ambiguous trauma prior to the events of the film. Although it’s not specifically stated until one of the last few scenes, you can probably infer as to what it is. Seeking some form of means to save their marriage, the arrival of a newlywed couple next door could be their salvation. Both Roland and Vanessa discover a peephole in their room that allows them to peek into their neighbors’ affairs.
This peephole acts as a metaphorical and literal window into the past for Roland and Vanessa. It also provides a source of convergence for the distant lovers. Like a lot of the ideas in By the Sea, little is explored beyond surface details. There’s no exploration of moral quandaries or worthwhile discussions about the past. Neither Roland nor Vanessa is an interesting character internally. They spend much of the film separated and speaking very little. It almost feels like they are shooting some sort of promotional advertisement for beauty regiments. When they do actually have conversations with one another, there is not much for the sake of dramatic flair. The newlywed couple next door (Melanie Laurent and Melvin Poupaud) are more interesting just on comparison alone.
The subject matter and visual artistry of By the Sea pays homage to several art house films of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a gorgeous film to look at. The cinematography is full of vivid imagery and there’s some attentive period detail. Specifically, I noticed a lot of techniques from the films of Michelangelo Antonioni from that period. There’s several extended scenes with minimal dialogue and themes of failing relationships. His film La Notte conveniently also centers on a relationship between a male writer and female beauty. Even though By the Sea is an aesthetic and thematic companion piece to Antonioni, it misses the core of what made Antonioni successful. His films were able to expose the problems the characters were facing on an internal level. When they came to the surface, they hit with an emotional resonance because it was earned. In By the Sea, there is too much emotional distance between myself and the characters to be invested on any level.
Given the events of her life, Jolie does manage to put in a couple of Meta plot points. She has been very open about the struggles of a celebrity marriage and her recent surgical decisions. On that level, I can see how this film was conceived. Roland even chooses to write a novel based on his tumultuous marriage. Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Smith, they do not have much chemistry with one another on-screen. This acting clash infringes upon some of Jolie’s intentions in the storytelling. Her performance does little to benefit the story. Even though she spends much of the film in a strung out state, she sure does do a great job of applying makeup and dressing well.
Whatever Jolie was attempting to portray in this story, the end result is a film that does not convey enough to warrant investment. I have no issue with a film analyzing the dour state of the human condition. With that said, there needs to be something to latch onto. Outside of the beautiful production design and visual aesthetic, I couldn’t shake a feeling of indifference to the story. I would have much rather taken a trip to Malta myself. I could have admired the setting without being subjected to a hollow passion project.