Angie's Arty Adventure

By the Sea
(USA, 132 min.)
Written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt
Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Niels Arestrup, Melvil Poupaud
Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt in By the Sea.
Universal Pictures Canada.

Angelina Jolie Pitt directs her third dramatic feature with By the Sea, and this piece of Euro arthouse cinéma finally gives the first onscreen team of Brangelina since the two actors heated things up in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. (Granted, Pitt has a cameo in Jolie’s dramatic directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey, but this film is their first real pairing both in front of the camera and behind it.) The two actors are as hot and sexy as ever in this languid arty vacationer that plays like the seaside holiday of Frank and April Wheeler as Americans Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) take a holiday in France and see their marriage hit the rocks. Scenes from a marriage, perhaps? Let’s hope not, but Angie's arty adventure deserves some credit as the couple spices things up.

Roland and Vanessa sit by the sea as an escape from life as Roland tries to write a new novel and Vanessa just, well, sulks. Aimless days go by, and By the Sea shows no discernable duration of time as time flows back and forth like the sea. Roland mostly drinks and chats with the salty bartender (Niels Arestrup), while Vanessa drinks alone. There’s ample tension between them, yet By the Sea gives only as few hints as possible with which one may piece together a backstory. It doesn’t really matter what creates the distance between Roland and Vanessa, for the space between them goes in and out with little rewards, much like the fisherman whom Vanessa fondly observes trawling back and forth to sea with few fish in his boat on the way back.

By the Sea notably changes pace for Jolie Pitt as a director following the wartime films In the Land of Blood and Honey and last year’s underrated Unbroken. By the Sea is more aesthetically ambitious than Jolie Pitt’s previous two films are, for the earlier efforts, especially Unbroken, are more straightforward pieces of classical Hollywood cinema, while By the Sea is some kind of art nouveau influenced by a potpourri of European directors. Sea might be the lessor of Jolie Pitt’s directorial efforts, but the change of pace shows Jolie Pitt’s adeptness behind the camera and a continuation of her keen intuition for composition and film form.

Jolie Pitt shows that she’s ready to draw from a pantheon of cinematic greats as the languid aesthetics of By the Sea intoxicate with their melancholy sexiness. The cinematography by Christian Berger (The White Ribbon) is ravishing, like a Chanel ad, and enhances the Euro-arthouse flavour. Jolie Pitt certainly knows how to place a camera, and the pensive shots of her character Vanessa having a sultry smoke by the sea show an ability to condense a great deal of information, tension, and emotion into a frame through the careful balance of composition and performance. The prettiness of the scenery juxtaposes the emptiness of the stilted marriage that plays out by the water. Pitt, similarly, works well under his wife’s direction, even if his atrocious French accent—worse than his comically butchered Italian in Inglourious Basterds!—might have best been reconsidered with the words, “Je ne parle pas français.

While Jolie Pitt brings much to the film both as an actress and as a director, she could still use some polishing on her screenwriting since By the Sea struggles mostly due to the lethargy of writing. Nothing really happens for the first hour of By the Sea. While the film looks wonderful and Jolie Pitt relishes the languid pace, the film almost seems pointless with its meandering first act. Roland and Vanessa sulk and drink. They sit alone. She reads and he tries to write. They talk about not talking and then they don’t talk. Jolie Pitt capably creates scenes of an unhappy marriage, but the aimlessness and listless nearly renders it inert.

One wishes that By the Sea pushed Roland and Vanessa more into George and Martha territory (or encouraged the yelling matches of the aforementioned Wheelers), as the languid beginnings of the film (not to mention the marketing) create a desire for full-throttle explosiveness. What happens, though, is more of an implosion as team Jolie Pitt-Pitt kicks it up to eleven only once. These people want to fight, but their too cowardly to draw the first blood. The tension kills them. The absence of a fight leaves them in a no man’s land without resolution, or at sea without a paddle.

Things pick up when Roland and Vanessa get kinky and start playing peeping tom with the newlywed couple, played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, who rent the room next door. Jolie Pitt brings the film to life as Roland and Vanessa find a mutual perversity in playing vaycay voyeurs, as the couple derives a perverse thrill from the shared salaciousness of spying on the newlyweds. By the Sea undoubtedly benefits in this stage from the star personas of its two leads as one watches the husband and wife get freaky. Brad and Angelina look as if they’re having a lot of fun together: their chemistry is natural, and as By the Sea arouses itself back to attention, Jolie Pitt engages the viewer with the reckless self-destructiveness of the couple as they try to steal the spark from another couple. Angelina seems to have mellowed in the kink factor following the Billy Bob Thornton days, but it’s nice to see that echoes of her former badass self is still kickin’ as she steps behind the camera.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

By the Sea is now playing in limited release.