Film Review: ‘By the Sea’

By the Sea trailer
Courtesy of Universal

Angelina Jolie Pitt's third directing effort is a glossy Euro-art-film throwback that struggles to turn its own beautiful inertia into a virtue.

Retreating from wartime horrors (“Unbroken,” “In the Land of Blood and Honey”) to explore the less perilous minefield of a troubled marriage, Angelina Jolie Pitt pulls off a halfway compelling trick with “By the Sea,” an unabashed vanity project that struggles to turn its own beautiful inertia into a virtue. Drenched in so many photogenic shades of cream, tan and khaki that it might as well have been titled “Beige Valentine,” this glossy Euro-modernist-art-film throwback casts the writer-director and her husband, Brad Pitt, as a gorgeously unhappy 1970s American couple seeking to escape their demons during an extended stay on the Maltese coast. Meandering and overlong in ways that will test the patience of even die-hard Brangelina fans, the film ultimately feels too dramatically reductive and obvious to pull off its desired cocktail of Albee and Antonioni, limiting its appeal primarily to those viewers who can get drunk on visual pleasure alone.

Likely to meet with some audience curiosity upon its initial rollout Nov. 13, though not enough to sustain a strong commercial showing, this Universal release reps the first starring vehicle for Pitt and Jolie Pitt in the decade since “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (2005), the homicidal-marital-therapy comedy that famously set the actors’ off-screen relationship in motion. While they wed only just last year (prompting the director’s change in billing), their fictional alter egos here have already been married 14 years when we first see them speeding through Malta in a top-down convertible. They are Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), and their every gesture — every frown through tinted shades, every silent inhalation of cigarette smoke — amply confirms that they are the two most impossibly, unapproachably chic people ever to grace this uniquely scenic corner of the Old World.

Taking up residence in a large hotel suite with a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, the two settle into an uneasily meandering rhythm that matches the film’s own. Roland, a novelist, is trying to get over a bad case of writers’ block, though he’d get more done if he didn’t hole up daily at the local bar, run by a friendly, grizzled proprietor (a fine Niels Arestrup). Vanessa, a former dancer, remains indoors most of the time, occasionally venturing out for a walk to the market or the water’s edge. He’s tired and sardonic; she’s sullen and depressive. The two seem to have agreed, almost as a pre-emptive measure, to spend as little time together as possible. When they’re in the same room, the air between them feels charged with unhappiness, for reasons that they don’t feel especially inclined to clue us in about.

The levels of narrative and visual interest kick up a slight notch with the arrival of Lea (Melanie Laurent, who starred with Pitt in “Inglourious Basterds”) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), a honeymooning French couple who offer our protagonists a bittersweet glimpse of their younger, happier selves. That becomes true on an altogether more intimate level when they discover a small hole in the wall that allows them a glimpse directly into the newlyweds’ boudoir, and find themselves unable to tear themselves away from the sight of the newlyweds’ passionate lovemaking. In its best and most amusingly perceptive moments, “By the Sea” surveys the romantic/therapeutic properties of voyeurism, as Roland and Vanessa seem alternately turned on, perplexed, saddened and vaguely threatened by what’s transpiring next door, prompting the first real stirrings of husband-and-wife communication in some time.

Neither this nor the tentative, surface-level interactions that follow are enough to turn them into compellingly drawn figures, leaving the actors with little to do but fall back on their not-inconsiderable star wattage. Jolie Pitt proves a canny enough director of her own husband, who brings his strong physicality to bear on the role of Roland in an effectively restrained way (he also speaks rather good French in his extended conversations with Arestrup). But the actress struggles to spin a coherent performance from what feels like a collection of tortured, grief-stricken poses, and there’s something too studied about the way her outdoor attire (thick sunglasses, long sleeves, broad-brimmed hats) functions as shorthand for her emotional-zomboid state. Jolie Pitt’s most arresting star turns in recent years (particularly in “Changeling” and “Maleficent”) have accentuated her beauty to an almost otherworldly degree, but here, the attention paid to details of her wardrobe and makeup feels distracting and self-conscious, particularly in a few instances of excessively streaky, borderline-ghoulish eyeshadow.

Over the course of the film’s leisurely two-hour running time, it’s possible to be moved in fits and starts by stray scenes from this marriage — particularly when Roland tenderly cradles a sobbing Vanessa in the shower — but in an almost entirely abstract, depersonalized way. That detachment becomes even more pronounced in the film’s faltering final stretch; rather than rooting her characters’ marital woes in a sort of inexplicable, free-floating malaise, Jolie Pitt falls into the trap of providing a concrete explanation. By the time the sad, cliche truth finally comes out, it arrives far too late to surprise those viewers who have been paying attention.

Doing work that could hardly be more different from his Oscar-nominated black-and-white lensing on “The White Ribbon,” d.p. Christian Berger captures Malta’s sun-drenched exteriors and the beige-and-ivory interiors of Jon Hutman’s production design using mostly natural light, with often exquisite results. The unmemorably tasteful accompaniment of Gabriel Yared’s string-based score is accentuated by a handful of choice pop selections including Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s “Jane B,” which is answered in the final stretch by a blast of Chopin. “By the Sea” always offers something to tickle the eye and ear, even as it leaves the heart and mind coolly unstirred.

Film Review: 'By the Sea'

Reviewed at AFI Fest (opener), Los Angeles, Nov. 5, 2015. Running time: 122 MIN.

Production

A Universal release of a Jolie Pas production. Produced by Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt. Executive producers, Chris Brigham, Holly Goline-Sadowski, Michael Vieira. Co-producers, Amy Herman, Joseph Reidy.

Crew

Directed, written by Angelina Jolie Pitt. Camera (Deluxe color), Christian Berger; editors, Patricia Rommel, Martin Pensa; music, Gabriel Yared; production designer, Jon Hutman; supervising art director, Tom Brown; art director, Charlo Dalli; set decorator, Jille Azis; set designer, Alessandro Troso; costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick; sound (Dolby Digital), David Stephenson; supervising sound editor, Becky Sullivan; re-recording mixers, Anna Behlmer, Mark Paterson; visual effects supervisor, Deak Ferrand; visual effects, Rodeo FX; line producer (Malta), Oliver Mallia; assistant director, Joseph Reidy.

With

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup, Richard Bohringer.

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  1. Celeste Harrison says:

    I am a movie fan. I see movies because they are movies. I don’t watch them so I can say I watched them like some coffee table book never read. I watch them not to fulfill my fantisys or prove that I am knowledgeable regarding psychology or history of film. I saw beautiful scenery, great bar scenes, sympathetic supporting actors and great music. To see Jolie and Brad try something different was an added attraction although forgive me, I wanted to slap her and tell him to shut up. And as for an Oscar or a large gross, when I go to see a movie, that is not even considered. What is wrong with watching a movie just to see a movie?

  2. What a boring self indulgent piece of crap that took 2 hours of my life.

  3. mary brands says:

    just jump, already.

  4. Michal Daniel says:

    >“By the Sea” always offers something to tickle the eye and ear, even as it leaves the heart and mind coolly unstirred.<
    Should say, "…left my heart and mind cooly unstirred."
    Because, please do not speak of me. Speak of your self.
    Nothing like heartless critics.

  5. Cecil B Devine says:

    Listen, I knew Liz and Dick. Liz and Dick were FREINDS OF MINE! And let me tell you something, these are no Lizzes and Dicks buster!

  6. That was the most ass kissing I’ve ever seen for a bad movie.

  7. This years ‘ Gigli’

  8. harveycritic says:

    The reviewer states that the couple are “seeking to escape their demons during an extended stay on the Maltese coast.” Actually, they were vacationing somewhere in France, perhaps on the Riviera. It was merely filmed in Malta, on Gozo island, standing in for France.

  9. Mick says:

    Sounds like a parody of Before Midnight.

  10. 85wzen says:

    I think Sofia Coppola is the director to watch out for in the ‘girl’ area! Angie is cool, but I don’t think she should tax her pretty little mind like this, it’s best to sit back and let others set you up in the make believe! She was very good actually in the Snow White number, trying to get love for her Bad Witch! Delicious! lol…

  11. Marie says:

    How is nepotism better than misogyny?

    Can you even imagine an aspiring female director looking to her as a role model?

  12. emma says:

    Is anyone surprised though? Both have always been mediocre actors with really good looks. Looks fade, as they clearly are fading in this case, and then what? Angie was truly excellent at playing that weirdo Girl, Interrupted characters, and I loved her for it. But she could never do anything other than that – no range. But I respect her as an actor. Brad Pitt was just never good in any role and I think he knows it..

    So you put them together in a movie, a movie that’s just so self-indulgent, basically asking you to love it just because you have some unhealthy fixation with celebrity, and what? It’s supposed to be a good movie? And now these rumors about how they were always aiming at an indy-arty flick is a bunch of bs. The film cost over $30 million to make. They were hoping for a hit..

  13. Tracey says:

    Looks like she really is a minimally talented spoilt brat. I don’t think any studios will be rushing to give her another directing gig any time soon. It sounds like she should stick to making home movies of her kids.

  14. Interesting a Star is public property and the commenters are wannabe professional film critics…

  15. J says:

    I saw the trailer, thought it was a revised, more arty version of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ and decided instantly I wasn’t going to bother. Because ‘Who’s Afraid’ was fantastic and a classic. This will be considered a b.s. vanity piece that tries too hard to show the world they can act. We know you two can act. Was this the way to show the world? No.

    And this isn’t hating on Jolie and Pitt because they are Jolie and Pitt. Maybe if she would have made this with someone other than her husband, we wouldn’t be so harsh? Maybe. Seeing the trailer also gave me flashbacks to the terrible ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and the fixation that it was Nicole and Tom’s marriage on screen, a heightened portrayal of something going on in real life instead of seeing made up characters. I don’t know. I just don’t see why.

  16. Alice says:

    The trailer made the movie looked so much as something that tried way too hard to appear as a Oscar bait that I thought it was a satire. I don’t know why so many actors try to become directors, when only a very few can actually do the job right.

    • yoli says:

      After watching the trailer, I too was reminded of Eye Wide Shut. I find no interest in watching a couple acting together so they can act out their sexual inhibitionas, fantasties or whatever the case may be. Tom & Nicole like people watching them have sex (it wasn’t good) and these two like to watch others.

  17. Justin Chang, this film was NEVER meant to be a “commercial” film.

    • Mike says:

      Actually, it was. Universal spent millions making it and it was originally supposed to roll out in thousands of theaters, not in THREE. At least that’s according to theater owners. Not to mention Pitt and Jolie did a huge marketing campaign. Nothing was off limits. Big interviews, a huge photoshoot with the kids, lengthy details about the cancer Jolie hasn’t even had yet, on and on about their relationship, a bunch of intimate wedding details, they trotted out EVERYTHING.

      It was supposed to be a huge Oscar worthy picture rolled out during Oscar season, as much as they now pretend like this was all supposed to be a completely non- commercial art film that no one was really really supposed to see. It’s only because everyone involved recently realized recently that the film was going to be a total dud that it’s prospects were significantly downgraded.

    • Mick says:

      I hate that Brad and everyone is stating this is a little bitty art film as if that is an excuse for it being bad. It is not a art film it is a vanity project gone bad. If they want to call it an art film that is fine but make sure they stress this is a really bad art film.

      • allegoryofthecave says:

        Right on! Only those who have never seen an art film would call this pile of horse manure ‘art film’.

  18. Eljeran says:

    Jolie has created and crafted such a pathetic, sad, victimized, cancer-ridden, lost my mom, earth mother, selfless, humanitarian, UN do-gooder, dame, saint image that people are too nervous to really pan her talentless ass for fear of looking like diabolical assh*le

    • Chris says:

      I noticed that to. If anyone else directed this it would be getting ripped to shreds, but she is trying to prevent that by making sure that, as usual, brings her personal life into making difficult for reviewers rip the poor me Jolie apart. Oh its so bad but it was inspired by her mother that died nearly 8 years ago. Really? A movie about a couple watching people have sex through a peep whole? She is so manipulative. Stop walking around egg shells around this bloated celebrity phony!!

      • allegoryofthecave says:

        Thank you, Chris. Well said. Film companies should stop pouring tons of money into this talent-free phony and give it to really talented people who can actually make films.
        And please people stop calling this an ‘art film’. It is a bad imitation of an art film. The Jolie Pitts would not know an art film if it hit them on the face with a wet fish.

  19. Is th effort to be as far away from their seminal “Smith” duo?

  20. Jim says:

    There is a double standard in judging Ms. Jolie & male actors-turned-directors. You could describe it as latent misogyny. Nobody tells Clint Eastwood, who actually directed a lot of mediocre and even bad movies in his career, to quit directing and focus on acting. And Clint, as much as I like him, is only great at playing one type. Angelina knows a few more and she can be a very fine actress. Or take Kevin Costner, who made “The Postman”, a Razzie Awards classic that more or less finished his directing career. Nearly every male star has tried directing, mostly with bad results. Exceptions are Ben Affleck and Joel Edgerton. Why are these people allowed to direct & write whatever they want without ever being questioned, but not a female star like Angie? It doesn’t matter if the results are great works of art: Angelina Jolie has every right in the world to express herself with directing and writing. I admire her guts to do an uncommercial film like this. If the results don’t appeal to the masses, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It will take years to know. I want to see this because of the top crew and cast involved.
    And because we haven’t seen a film like this in a while. More respect for Ms. Jolie!

    • Sam says:

      All of her movies have been critically slammed. If anything they have been really kind to her. How many actors or even directors get the freedom and money and attention she did for their SECOND movie like she did for Unbroken? Unbroken was bad and she was still getting Oscar talk! That never happens with most directors or non-celebrity directors. Unbroken got more attention last year than most of the much more deserved movies did and she even got a seat at the actors round table for Hollywood Reporter and the movie SUCKED!!!! She gets special attention because she is a celebrity and really pretty, otherwise she would have never gotten an opportunity to direct Unbroken or By the Sea another really BAD movie.

    • LOL says:

      Jim, son, I agree with all that you’ve said.

      Jolie is a proper movie star, maybe even the last true female movie star in the classic sense of the term. She’s good and a great American ambassador. People will miss her as she shifts into other territories of professional development.

      To have got a major H’wood studio to produce and distribute a film of this nature is phenomenal. Methinks it may even be the last of its kind as studios eschew good talent relationships in favour of brand concentration.

      • Ken says:

        Thank you LOL and Jim for your fair-minded posts. I agree with both of you. Ms. Jolie is great (and very fetching) in kick-ass fare such as LARA CROFT, SALT and WANTED…but one needs to re-watch her stunning portrayals in GIA, A MIGHTY HEART and CHANGELING to realize what a gifted woman she can be. She is an artist continuing to explore her craft. BY THE SEA sounds intriguing…a complete change of pace from the typical multiplex offerings. For those who demand CGI/explosions every 10 minutes, I would suggest they stay away; for those of us amused by elegant Euro-style posturing, it might be fun.

  21. Cheeseman says:

    Can’t stand how NBCU uses Tom Brokaw as a shill for Brangelina’s movies for the last two years.

    • mickey says:

      Changeling? Really? Just saying “He’s not my son” over and over?

      • Janie says:

        Actually, I think she was fantastic in Changeling. The movie was great, and I was surprised by her acting in that movie. she’s usually so dull and overblown that I lose interest and start reading instead.

  22. Lance says:

    Ok now that we have established Angelina is not a good director, not that great of an actress, and cant write at all can we move on from her and focus on actors and directors that have true skill and talent? She has coasted on her looks long enough its time she shows real depth. I cant think of any actor in Hollywood that has been given so much attention for mediocrity ever!!

    • delimilliemount says:

      Agreed. I’m fed up with the “well at least she’s a woman getting directing work and profile for it” disclaimer. There are so many structural issues within the Hollywood jobs market without Angelina Jolie’s unearned prominence being used to run people up a blind alley. There are too many writers and directors (women and men) with talent going to waste while ‘Names’ are being given blank checks to phone in sub standard (or vanity) work simply because come release time they will do magazine covers, family photo spreads, health and lifestyle reveals, and red carpet posing.

      One of Unbroken’s few good points was the cinematography; it appears the same is being said for By the Sea. Surely even Angelina Jolie’s hubris won’t run to her inserting herself (her ‘Name’) into that job title too for her next production.

    • Anna says:

      Stay pressed.
      I mean, so many other directors in Hollywood have continued to get many more movies made after making critical flops, three mediocre films does not necessarily mean that Jolie is not a good director, but more that she can’t choose good material. Instead of complaining about Jolie getting films made because of her ‘looks’, which is ridiculous, people should simply ignore her… and then maybe we’ll all stop talking about her films.

      • Sam says:

        Three mediocre movies in a row, and the last two were reedited because they were a mess, is not a sign of a good director. What I feel needed to be done is she should have directed something for TV first, or at least some kind of short film to get her feet wet instead of jumping in head first. That just makes her open herself up for this kind of criticism. I mean, even David FIncher started out making little commercials and music videos before he was trusted with a huge film!! She needed to pay her dues and learn the craft first.

      • Keira says:

        She actually wrote this stinker too, so looks like she cant create material either. Angelina coasts on her celebrite! The studio could sense they had a mess on their hands and rather than reigh her in, they indulged her in the hope that she will resume acting in mainstream fair and make their money back. This movie is literally a “loss leader”. My only hope is that she steps away from directing and uses her mega Hollywood clout to push for ACTUALLY talented female writer/directors for her and Brads next movies

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