Whenever an actor makes the leap to directing, there’s always the question of whether that person can be as effective behind the camera as they are in front of it. There’s no doubt that Angelina Jolie Pitt knows what she’s doing while looking through the lens as opposed to emoting into it: never having been a fan of her acting, I daresay she might well evolve into a better director than thespian.
But the key word is “might,” because despite the fact that her handling of her third directorial effort, By The Sea (which she also wrote), is assured in many ways, the film is also a crashing bore to sit through, a pretentious, pointless slog through a torturous relationship that offers so little at the end — in fact, what it does offer might be deemed offensive in certain quarters — that the entire 130 minutes that came before almost feels like a joke.
Perhaps if By The Sea (which I caught during its world premiere at AFI Fest in Hollywood) was made as a parody, it might have worked better. Jolie Pitt is clearly out to channel the spirit of existential European dramas of the ‘60s, especially films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte. Right from the start the mood is set by an old Serge Gainsbourg tune, “Jane B.,” played under the credits as the camera zooms in and out of shots of Jolie Pitt and her real-life husband, Brad Pitt, zipping along scenic seaside roads in Malta, circa the early 1970s. That opening delivers perhaps the most energy of the entire film, as the Pitts, playing a deeply damaged couple named Roland and Vanessa, settle into a local hotel and a repetitive inert melodrama for the next two hours.
Roland is a novelist, and in the best tradition of such characters, we see him writing very little and getting drunk day in and day out at the pub across the way from the hotel (run by A Prophet‘s Niels Arestrup in arguably the film’s best, most layered performance). Vanessa, meanwhile, takes to the vast bed in their room and pretty much stays there, although her thick eyeshadow and makeup are always in place. Roland goes out, Vanessa stays in (a shopping trip or two aside), Roland comes back and asks Vanessa some variation on “How long are you going to do this?” and Vanessa stares pathetically back and mumbles some ambiguous response. And that’s how it goes, over and over again, for a good long while.
Things perk up a bit when a couple of young French honeymooners (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) take the room next door, as Roland and Vanessa discover a small hole in their shared wall that allows the older couple to spy on the younger one as they engage in the kind of constant, vigorous activity you’d expect from the newly married. That seems to reignite some brief spark in the older pair, who also socialize a little with the newlyweds in more appropriate circumstances, yet it all soon turns sour as Vanessa initiates some especially destructive behavior that threatens to make By The Sea a little less turgid than it’s been so far.
By the time we finally learn why Vanessa is so depressed and her relationship with Roland is becoming the Titanic of marriages… let’s just say that anyone who had a problem with Joss Whedon’s handling of Black Widow in Avengers: Age of Ultron should have a field day here.
Jolie Pitt has proven she can at least move a story along and even create some striking if dark moments in her two previous outings as a director, In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken, but her story here is so ponderous that all the gorgeous visuals in the world — and she captures plenty of them in the bucolic setting with the help of cinematographer Christian Berger — cannot save this fundamentally uninteresting and lethargic tale. She wants to pay tribute to the emotional undercurrent of those great Italian films by Antonioni, but By The Sea is all surface with little to say underneath. That has always been my sense about her acting as well; she is always “acting” and never really inhabiting a character, and the same goes here for Vanessa, whose large, shadowy eyes and wan, gaunt face give her the appearance and substance of a ghost.
Pitt — reteaming onscreen with his wife for the first time since Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) — fares somewhat better as Roland, who at first makes you believe he is going to be the clichéd, self-absorbed, and drunkenly cruel writer we have seen many times before, but slowly unveils himself as a person of loyalty, humanity, and compassion. It’s just a shame that it takes him so long to get there as you’re struggling to stay awake during the long, static silences between the two. It’s an actual struggle to accept why he wants to fight to save his marriage to the sullen Vanessa, who comes off as a collection of depressive quirks instead of a real person.
Any narrative threads that might provide some interest (such as the idea that acting as voyeurs can save Roland and Vanessa’s marriage) are lightly explored, than largely abandoned in favor of more posturing and sulking. Only someone with the star power of Jolie Pitt could conceivably get the green light to make a movie like this — the definition of a vanity project if there ever was one — but even celebrity-minded fans of the world’s most famous couple might have their patience put to the test by seeing Angie and Brad in such a generally unfavorable light here.
By the time they finally pack up and leave the hotel again, I was more than happy to see them go. If Jolie Pitt ever wants to make a sequel, she should focus on the pub owner instead.
By The Sea is out in theaters this Friday (Nov. 13).