What keeps the film churning? Not much. A bit of withheld information.
By the Sea, directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
By Gerald Peary
It was Roberto Rossellini’s 1953 Voyage to Italy, with George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman as a bruised, estranged husband and wife, which established the land of sunny Italy as the unhappy background for artsy movies about connubial discord. Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now are three prime examples, and now there’s By the Sea, written and directed by and starring Angelina Jolie Pitt, which tries mightily to succeed in this same much-mined territory.
Set in the early 1970s (Pat Nixon is on the cover of a fashion magazine!), By the Sea tells of a very Scott-and-Zelda duo, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), bringing their gloom and despair after 14 years of marriage to the Maltese coast, in the Mediterranean close to Southern Italy. He’s an alcoholic novelist whose best books are behind him; he is struggling, and not succeeding, to write another. She’s an ex-dancer too old to dance, and who seems to have no purpose in life at all. Vanessa is depressed and angry. She takes walks and stares into the water. Is she contemplating suicide? Meanwhile, Roland squanders his days in a local bar chatting with its personable owner (Niels Arestrup) and drinking, drinking. His notebook lies open, blank pages.
In Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005), the only other pairing of superstars Brad and Angelina, they were also embattled marrieds who, fortunately, recovered their mojo through their jobs as secret hired assassins. Instead of shooting each other, as ordered to do, the Smiths put down their guns and have sex. The crowds loved it, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, ultimately a romantic comedy, was a smash hit.
Well, audiences expecting a repeat are going to loathe By the Sea. Universal Pictures, the distributor, must be going bonkers trying to figure out how to sell this one to the mainstream public. I don’t think they can. By the Sea, except for its glorious scenery, is one downer of a movie, start to finish, and Vanessa and Roland—so rich, so privileged, so bored—are off-putting and unlikable beginning to end. Plus the film is slow, extremely self-conscious. And the tiny bit of story provided is kinky and uncomfortable, what you might expect of a perverse Paul Schrader film.
Brooding Vanessa, hanging about depressed in her hotel suite, discovers one diversion which picks her up a bit. She obsessively peers through a tiny hole in the wall at the amorous activities next door of a young, hot, smug Parisian couple, Lea (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), who are on an extended honeymoon. When Roland discovers Vanessa’s voyeurism, he encourages it. Soon, they both watch. It might get them back to lovemaking.
What keeps the film churning? Not much. A bit of withheld information. Just why is Vanessa so pissed off at her husband, and life in general? We wait and wait to find out. Was there some incredible, unforgivable transgression? The answer when it finally comes is tame and obvious, not worth the stall.
So is By the Sea a total stinker, as many of the reviews indicate? It certainly teeters on the borderline of kitsch. Still, I don’t dismiss it completely. I couldn’t warm to it, yet there’s some admiration for Jolie Pitt, obstinately attempting an intimate art movie in the jaws of commercial Hollywood.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.