2 / 5
It’s been ten years since the Jolie-Pitts co-starred together in Mr & Mrs Smith, ten years since they subsumed their independent identities into the portmanteau ‘Brangelina.’ I expected By the Sea to correlate with Mr & Mrs Smith the way Titanic does with Revolutionary Road. In other words, I yearned for former romance to dissolve in a cataclysm of explosive arguments and festering resentments. But to compare these two films is to do Sam Mendes’ arresting tale of suburban ennui a great disservice, since Angelina’s passion project is – as so many passion projects tend to be – uncomfortably self-indulgent and, ultimately, tedious. Few creatives can skilfully navigate the director-writer-actor triad and, after viewing By the Sea, I can confirm that Ms Jolie-Pitt is not one of them.
In a sleepy French village overlooking the Mediterranean, Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) languishes in the gilded cage of her hotel room as her husband Roland (Brad Pitt) drunkenly fumbles to recapture his former success as a novelist. The film is plagued by a fundamental lack of action. Days seem to pass in real time as the protagonists avoid each other’s company: Vanessa ambling lethargically to the market while Roland’s ballpoint pen poises expectantly above his notebook. Not only are their movements executed excruciatingly slowly, they also take on a ritualistic quality and recur with minimal symbolic significance. Just why we have to repeatedly witness Roland overturn his wife’s Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses, I fail to understand. One of the fundamental problems of By the Sea is that the root cause of the couple’s disintegration is not articulated until the denouement, which reduces any empathy we may feel towards the characters. The dialogue compounds this flaw and is peppered with unfounded comments like “She’s not so easy to love” and “You don’t have to be unhappy.”
On the whole, the script is elementary, mired in cliché and lacking in subtlety. Jolie-Pitt heavy-handedly sets up a juxtaposition between her own ill-fated romance and the blissful lovemaking of the newlyweds she spies on next door, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud). Fearing that the spectator would fail to notice that these couples are traversing different stages of the same amorous trajectory, we are explicitly informed that the French lovers worry they will one day transform into rancorous husks like their American counterparts. As if these parallels weren’t obvious enough, the contrast between Lea’s sempiternal white dresses and Vanessa’s black gossamer gowns emphasises the gulf separating these emblems of marital innocence and knowledge.
I wanted to love By the Sea. I was seduced by the trailer’s promise of sun soaked vistas, smouldering discord and provincial French sophistication. But, however talented Angelina Jolie-Pitt is as an actress, her competence behind the camera leaves a lot to be desired.