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When watching the previews of By the Sea, you are mesmerized by the glamorous setting and a super stylized Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. The audience member is probably sucked in thinking that this is a glimpse into the real life of a superstar couple. Jolie, directing from a script that she wrote, was probably banking on that idea to bring in audiences. She knew how to get us in the theater, she just needs work on keeping us there.
By the Sea is centered around a married couple who travels to the French countryside for a getaway in what maybe the early 1970’s. Roland (Brad Pitt) is a frustrated writer attempting to complete a new novel, and his wife Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) is a former dancer with an icy demeanor that becomes apparent as soon as she steps one foot out of the car.
Palpable tension can be sensed between Roland and Vanessa even in the car ride to the venue, but after a few words of dialogue, it becomes obvious that this not a friendly couple fight that will soon have a happy ending. By the Sea does not use unnecessary couple bickering and overwrought soliloquies to underline the couple’s rough patch. It is almost as if in every scene before the climax, Roland and Vanessa attempt to say what’s wrong and then bite their tongue so the audience can spend more time guessing.
Vanessa encounters a newlywed couple staying in the next room and the wife, Lea, takes an immediate liking to Vanessa. From this point on, Lea and her husband, Francois are used as a contrast to Roland and Vanessa’s problems to demonstrate what they could possibly be if they were happy again.
Angelina Jolie’s direction of this film appears more as a series of photographs than an actual film. There are plenty of close-ups of Jolie’s face with her eyeliner running, in deep thought, or in pain, but there’s really not much else. When I think of this film, I think of the characters of Roland and Vanessa as supporting characters to the scenery. It’s a beautiful location and it adds a great tone to the film, but it is almost as if the melancholy tone overpowers the characters. Roland spends most of his time drinking in the café downstairs and relenting about his troubles in French to the owner, but his interactions with Jolie are unmemorable and artificial. One would think if you were trying to rekindle your relationship with your wife, you would have more to say to each other. The reveal of why Roland and Vanessa are so strained doesn’t really fit their behavior towards each other throughout the film. Vanessa seems angry at Roland, not hurt or heartbroken. Roland constantly takes her abuse and berates her for self-medicating. The ending is unexpected, but forced. And in my opinion, the motivation behind Vanessa’s choice in the ending did not really make much sense.
Brad and Angelina give good performances and the overall By the Sea is not a bad film. Rather, it seems more like a first time director’s attempt at entering Sundance than an actual festival selection. The film, in particular the first half, tries to be mysterious and poignant. It uses very little dialogue to convey emotion, but instead of just having the main characters express pain using facial and body cues to express emotion, it just has them not saying or doing anything at all. It forces you to see the symbolism, with Vanessa constantly putting her sunglasses on the table face down, or the first words to Roland when he enters a room is, “Do you want a drink?” when he’s already drunk.
I understand that this is mostly a small vanity project for Jolie, but I think she missed this mark here. Roland and Vanessa cannot make up their mind if they want to be happy or not, and it confuses the audience, and from the time we enter the theatre until the time we leave. We don’t really care.
By the Sea opened in limited release November 13, 2015