REVIEW: By the Sea

28 11 2015

By the SeaAngelina Jolie Pitt’s third film, “By the Sea,” feels like a bloated student thesis project. And, for once, I do not use that term in a completely pejorative manner.

Jolie Pitt’s last directorial outing, “Unbroken,” was such a formulaic piece of studio entertainment that it felt depressingly soulless in its mediocrity. (Her deeply misguided mess of a debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” is best left forgotten.) Here, she seems to be grappling with some fundamentals of cinema: editing, shot choice, shot duration, camera movement. Since Jolie Pitt holds such a position of power in Hollywood that she will likely see many opportunities to step behind the camera again, watching her grow is inarguably a positive thing.

Admittedly, there are far more qualified directors – female or male – deserving of eight-figure budgets to make a personal project. It’s frustrating to think on who lost out on their chance because Jolie Pitt got this one. Still, if she ever wants to take the reins of “Cleopatra” herself, everyone should be thankful she got to make “By the Sea” as a stylistic exercise.

The film is almost pure style, like a sleek perfume or cologne ad drawn out to feature length. Jolie Pitt and her husband, Brad Pitt, play the bitter married couple Vanessa and Roland, estranged practically to the point of their union dissolving. “By the Sea” follows their trip to the luxurious beaches of France from arrival to departure, chronicling their manifold frustrations in languorously broad strokes. Roland galavants off attempting to write his next novel, while Vanessa mostly just lingers around their hotel room smoking cigarettes and throwing shade through her Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses.

Angelina Jolie Brad Pitt By the Sea

The couple gets their rare hint of excitement through a peephole in the wall. Through this orifice, they can observe the rabbit-like habits of their neighbors, newlyweds Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud). At a certain point, however, their playful voyeurism crosses a line into perilous vicariousness.

Towards the end of the film, Roland declares, “I don’t think I like this game anymore” – as if “By the Sea” were some kind of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” offshoot. Perhaps in Jolie Pitt’s conception, it was. But her script gives the characters pitiful dialogue with which to express their inner turmoil; only on rare occasions does anyone in the film speak in anything more than a compound sentence.

She gets some help expressing mood visually from cinematographer Christian Berger, best known for shooting Michael Haneke films like “The White Ribbon.” The tranquil beauty of his shots stands in stark contrast to the quiet fury of the characters in them, lending some edge to the otherwise hackneyed story. (After about 10 minutes, see if you can guess what event precipitated the fissure in Roland and Vanessa’s marriage.) But neither Berger’s images nor Gabriel Yared’s soothing score can make up for the the lack of depth beginning at the script level. B-2stars

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2 responses

28 11 2015
Ricardo

Not as bad a grade as I was expecting. Your review makes it seem like you liked it even more.

28 11 2015
Marshall

It was still dismal, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes when expectations are low, you find surprising things to redeem it.

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