They often call star vehicles “vanity projects” because they’re made entirely by said star(s) to showcase whatever it is they want to show off. A movie written and directed by Angelina Jolie, produced by her and husband Brad Pitt, starring the pair of them, and shot close to where they live in the South of France is probably the very epitome of “vanity project.” But, Jolie seemed to go out of her way to be as unglamourous in her glamour as she could for the film By the Sea, a movie that’s at once challenging, interesting, and tough, and also plodding, predictable, and unremarkable.
You can see from the opening moments of the film what Jolie was attempting to do, clearly influenced by the French New Wave films of the ’60s and ’70s. She sets the film in the 1970s both for aesthetic purposes and to simplify the narrative. There are a lot of similarities to be drawn between this movie and something like Godard’s Contempt or the work of people like Jacques Demy or Agnes Varda. The trouble is, of course, that their movies were made on the cheap, with a punk rock edge and air of defiance. What the two biggest stars in the world could be defying is beyond me.
The film’s plot centers on Pitt, a novelist trying to find some inspiration for his next work. His wife (Jolie) is along for the ride and seems nonplussed by their new surroundings, a gorgeous little hotel on the coast. Clearly there’s something off between the pair, and he heads to the bar every day, making friends with the widowed proprietor (Niels Arestrup). He gets drunk every day. Meanwhile, his wife takes lots of pills and lounges on the hotel room patio every day. Eventually, a young newlywed couple (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) get the room next to theirs and Jolie begins spying on them via a hole between the two rooms.
It’s this spying, and Pitt’s eventual discovery of this, that gives the film its only true narrative punch. Only through constant voyeurism do the two of them begin to relate to each other again, but it seems fleeting. Jolie wrote herself a character who barely speaks, and is unable to emote anything besides moments of fear or rage. It’s admirable, I suppose, that she’d give herself such a thoroughly unlikable character, the reason for which is eventually, albeit rather unsurprisingly, revealed. However, in the scenes where the two of them are watching this other couple, she allows herself moments of humanity, or life, more accurately.
None of my problems with the film come from the elements Jolie picks for it. The gorgeous cinematography is by Christian Berger, who shot several of Michael Haneke’s films. It’d be hard to make that little seaside area look bad, but he makes it look truly special. All of the supporting cast do a wonderful job. You’d much rather spend all your time with Arestrup’s thoughtful, melancholy bar owner, or even the newlyweds (not through a peephole). It’s just a shame the central relationship never really comes together, or even has a bust-up, the way it ought to. At moments it looks like it might, but for me it never really did.
It’s not nearly as bad as some critics have expressed, but By the Sea is little more than a passing notion, a suggestion of a film that ought to have been a lot better than it was.
2.5 out of 5 Creepily-Watched French Burritos
Image: Universal Pictures
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor as well as film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. He’s on Twitter, too! You probably ought to follow him.