In “By the Sea” one of the most famous couples in the world play a world-weary couple. Written and directed by Angelina Jolie-Pitt, who also co-stars with hubby Brad, the film is a study of unhappy, beautiful people.
Jolie is Vanessa, a former famous dancer, now a pill popper on vacation in France with her writer husband Roland (Pitt). Both are looking for inspiration, she to wake up the next day, he for his next book. It’s a portrait of a couple who are falling apart.
“Have a nice day!” he says to her on his way out the morning after they arrive.
“I won’t,” she replies.
He spends his days drinking and trying to soak up the local flavour. She sits and broods, alone until she discovers a small hole in the wall that separates her suite with the room next door. She becomes obsessed with the newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) in the other room, spying on them for entertainment. When Roland discovers the peephole the voyeurism becomes a couple’s game. The hole in the wall begins to make their relationship whole again.
“I like to watch it with you because it makes me want to be with you,” says Roland.
The hole gives them a shared experience and a glimpse into a “normal” life but it doesn’t last long and soon their troubled relationship reaches a tipping point that also threatens the happiness of the other couple.
An exercise in sun-dappled dysfunction “By the Sea” is a mood piece about broken people. Ripe with plaintive looks and veiled dialogue, it presents Roland and Vanessa as vampires sucking vitality of those around them. There is a simmering undercurrent of tension throughout that unfortunately never comes to a boil.
Jolie-Pitt keeps a steady hand—perhaps too steady—in her handling of the story. She slowly peels away the beauty and glamour of the place and people to reveal the ugly personalities that lie underneath the glitzy surface. Trouble is, it takes forever. The movie wallows in Vanessa and Roland’s pain. Their marriage is failing because they can’t communicate with one another anymore, which is not exactly the stuff of great drama. They stare at one another, fall asleep and have tersely worded arguments. Mostly they spend a great deal of time observing other people and internalizing the emptiness of their lives.
It’s as exciting as it sounds.
“By the Sea” does have a message, a dull as dishwater lesson about going with the flow, but the moral isn’t worth the work it takes to get there.