Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s new film By the Sea is a throwback to the relationship dramas of a time gone by, a character study of two seriously unlikeable characters that occasionally feels a bit too real for comfort.
Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie) are headed to the French seaside for a working vacation, and you can tell right away that something’s not quite right with the couple. As they drive along the hillside, Roland fumbles with a cigarette and the car’s lighter; rather than helping him sort it out as he navigates the auto, Vanessa just sits there and smirks. It’s the sort of casual contempt you sometimes see in married couples. There’s nothing malicious about it, it’s not mean-spirited, exactly. It’s a brand of weariness.
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And these two certainly seem weary. Roland is a writer who can’t write anymore: he’s blocked. Vanessa is a dancer who can’t dance anymore: she’s aged. The two have undergone some sort of crisis, of what variety we can’t quite tell. Perhaps an infidelity? Perhaps an illness? Whatever it is, they aren’t talking about it. He’s drinking his days away in a restaurant below the hotel and chatting with the proprietor, Michel (Niels Arestrup). She’s popping pills and napping and taking in some sun, when she isn’t getting to know Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), the newlywed couple next door.
Unbeknownst to Lea and Francois, Vanessa has discovered a peephole connecting the two rooms. She likes to watch. And so does Roland, after he finds out about it. Their peeping brings them together—until it smashes them apart.
By the Sea, which is set sometime in the late-1960s or early-1970s, judging by the gadgetry and magazine cover subjects, is often slow going, as such meditations on upper class ennui often are. Those of you who nodded off during your Antonioni segments in cinema courses at college will likely endure some flashbacks here.
Still, there’s much to like. The little details—such as Roland’s insistence on flipping Vanessa’s sunglasses off their lenses whenever he passes them on the counter—lend the real-life couple’s onscreen pairing a verisimilitude that often feels missing from such depictions. Their relationship feels lived in, real. And, as all relationships sometimes are, it also feels a bit ugly.
The material, particularly the third act revelation, seems deeply personal for Jolie, who also wrote and directed. It’s rarely subtle and metaphors are never allowed to simply exist: they must be explained, our hands held all the while. As with many deeply personal movies, it’s not terribly surprising the studio is having a hard time marketing this one: By the Sea is opening in just 10 theaters this week, including in Washington, D.C., and I’ve yet to see a single ad for it.
But for those of you who regularly complain about the multiplex offering nothing of substance for adult audiences, this is a grand opportunity for you to put your money where your mouth is.