There’s something all too seductive about Angelina Jolie Pitt’s latest work of art, By the Sea. No, maybe not seductive, as that would imply a certain level of eroticism or coquettishness that the film tries to slink away from. But just as two individuals can find a semblance of joy, of comfort, in watching others through a peephole, this critic found those things in watching a budding filmmaker indulge in creating an art film bound to isolate practically anyone who steps in with set expectations.
Without a doubt, By the Sea is an incredibly flawed work about incredibly flawed people, Vanessa (Jolie) and Roland (Brad Pitt). One is a former dancer who spends her days hidden away in a seaside hotel room, taking medication alongside a glass of wine or ten, and the other a writer, unable to put pen to paper, regardless of being surrounded by interesting individuals. By no means should this sound like an innovative piece of writing—with the script admittedly being the film’s weakest aspect due to sometimes excusable repetition, predictability, and some too on-the-nose dialogue choices—but a lack of originality in narrative does not diminish how sumptuous a film Jolie offers.
And sumptuous it is, the budget being put to great use in making certain that the indulgent lives of this troubled couple is shown in all its extravagance. From scene to scene, Jolie seems clothed in a gown that has never seen the light of day prior to that moment, each one tailored to fit an upper-class woman living in 1970s France with only just enough looseness to flow but also accentuate every curve. It’s all intentional, of course, on multiple levels. For one, it offers up the suggestion that these layers only exist to cover up how reprehensible these individuals can be to themselves and to others (while also being strangely easy to sympathize with). And, on another level, the script and costuming, and sometimes lack thereof, intends to remind us that Vanessa is beautiful, even though she’s suffering deeply and believes she’s broken, inside and out.
Jolie isn’t the only beauty caught on camera though, with Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud co-starring as the lively, recently married couple next door that Vanessa and Roland set their eyes on. The sole way the couple finds entertainment and solace from the broken marriage they’re “working on” is by watching the other couple through a hole in the wall. It’s a decidedly voyeuristic plot point, but nothing about the camerawork feels as though it seeks to exploit those it is showing, even when the actors are nude and sexually active. What director of photography Christian Berger does magnificently in scenes shot through the peep hole is always offer a sense of danger in these lingering voyeuristic moments, as though the couple could be caught in their twisted little game at any instant.
But in making everything look so glamorous, Jolie and Berger offer a sense of fragility to practically everything in sight, a beautiful instance of aesthetics matching narrative content. It’s not just in the look of the film—the bright blue of the ocean and stark red of the typewriter shows color as fleeting, always cutting back to bathrooms and hotel rooms that seem sterilized and barely inhabited, even with massive suitcases and ruffled bed sheets in frame—it’s in the performances too. Pitt and Jolie, unsurprisingly, play beautifully against each other and command the screen when they’re off doing their own thing, but the leading lady and filmmaker delivers a pitch-perfect performance to complement what she’s doing behind the camera.
Likely plotted to fit the fact that she was once a dancer, every one of Vanessa’s movements feels like a cat too nervous to enjoy life again, already having come too close to death. This pairs up exquisitely with her line delivery, melodramatic in a way that will put off many viewers, but seems so natural in a film so preoccupied with presentation. It’s something that might come as a stark contrast to what those expecting By the Sea to be the Michelangelo Antonioni knock-off its trailers smartly imply it to be might anticipate, but it works because of how simultaneously familiar and alien an exploration of depression it is.
Each quirk and difference from what made Antonioni the filmmaker he was (dreadfully tedious to some and unequivocally engrossing to others) is exactly what proves that By the Sea can stand on its own though. Much like many arthouse filmmakers from an era not-so long gone, Angelina Jolie Pitt is preoccupied with making her outsides match her insides—cinematography, score, costuming, production design, and performances all tailored to make a sometimes off-putting and thin script feel more compelling than it really is—and that’s perfectly fine when you’ve got a film as good as this one.
Directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt; written by Angelina Jolie Pitt; starring Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent & Melvil Poupaud; 132 minutes.
By the Sea is currently undergoing a limited theatrical release.