How do we picture the private lives of Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt? If they were to, say, wind along the Mediterranean coast in a top-down convertible with Serge Gainsbourg lilting on the radio, would that do the trick?
In the opening of “By the Sea,” written and directed by Jolie Pitt, they are the picture of glamor we would expect from the stars, playing a married couple who breeze into a remote seaside cove in the South of France. The spell, however, is broken when they reach the water.
“I smell fish,” says Jolie Pitt’s Vanessa, stepping out of the car.
The 1970s seaside setting could hardly be more enchanting, but something is rotten on the French Rivera. Married 14 years and childless, Vanessa, a former dancer, and Roland, a struggling writer, arrive — not with the jaunty lightness of the opening — but as if seeking a shore on which to hurl their on-the-rocks marriage.
After checking into their hotel suite, they immediately, wordlessly begin rearranging the furniture and placing the desk by the window. They’re like actors setting a scene; the feeling of artifice never leaves “By the Sea,” which transpires almost entirely within the suite’s walls in a stylish, detached kind of melodramatic malaise.
They quickly settle into a strange routine: Roland spends his days drinking with the local bartender (the excellent Niels Arestrup) and failing to write, while Vanessa mopes around the hotel room. They speak little, in fraught exchanges that refer only vaguely to the prior trauma that hangs over them.
They are in, as Roland says, a “second-stage life,” long past the fresh excitement of their early years together and no longer the celebrated talents they once were. Lacking sure footing, they look enviously around them — particularly at the honeymooning couple (Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) next door.
The two couples timidly befriend each other. Vanessa’s interest, though, is piqued through a hole in the wall that lets her spy into their room. She’s stirred and aroused by the voyeurism, snapping her from her grief. It’s surely a great irony that one of the most famous women in the world has made a movie so much about the maladies of envy and the titillations of watching and being watched.
As a movie, the euro retro “By the Sea” — a kind of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” transplanted to Eric Rohmer’s France — is too limp, too artfully posed to work. The single-tear moments of sadness, the overdone presence of props (so many cigarettes and hats!) and the sometimes stilted dialogue make for a curiously wooden atmosphere that eventually stifles the considerable star-power of Pitt and Jolie Pitt.
Pitt’s Hemingway-esque writer, occasionally speaking French, comes through more clearly. But Jolie Pitt’s Vanessa, porcelain and restrained, does justice to Vanessa’s all-consuming grief but her performance doesn’t supply the melodrama the force it needs.
But as a curiosity and an experiment, “By the Sea” is an intriguing artifact and a remarkable bookend to their previous portrait of matrimony, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” To label it a “vanity project,” as some have done, is an injustice. Like Jolie Pitt’s previous directorial efforts (“In the Land of Blood and Honey,” ”Unbroken”), “By the Sea” is flawed but ambitious, certainly aiming for something distinctive and honest.
“By the Sea,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong sexuality, nudity and language.” Running time: 122 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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