Scenes from an A-List Marriage: By the Sea

By the Sea
Directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt
Opens November 13

Angelina Jolie is one of those actors who has managed to become extremely famous without starring in any really good movies. There are some decent ones on her CV here and there—The Good Shepherd, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Gone in 60 Seconds—that underuse her, while most of her signature hits (Maleficent; Tomb Raider; Wanted) have a certain auteur-like sensibility behind them as regards her star power—without actually working very well as movies. With By the Sea, Jolie (now credited as Angelina Jolie Pitt) writes and directs herself a role for the first time, after not appearing in last year’s Unbroken and 2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey. For good measure, she throws in her husband, Brad Pitt. It seems like a perfectly timed opportunity for her to wrest firmer control of her career, much as Sandra Bullock did a couple of years ago when Gravity and The Heat upped her quality rate by a solid 100% or so.

To be sure, By the Sea reps a major about-face from Jolie’s last movie, wherein she played a Disney villainess made sympathetic. The new movie is the kind of thing big studios aren’t supposed to be making anymore, if they ever really did: a presumably mid-to-low-budget, adult-targeted drama with the veneer of a European art film. Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) and Roland (Pitt) are a married American couple—he’s a writer who drinks; she’s a former dancer who pops pills—making a pit-stop in a small French town, parking at a seaside hotel where he intends to jumpstart his writing and she intends to glower and suffer, as most Angelina Jolie characters do. By the Sea is two hours long, and I hope I don’t sound like a philistine for pointing out that very little happens in it, or at least what does happen, happens so languidly that it takes a while for the story to turn up.

The couple’s marriage is clearly in some sort of trouble, with an unspoken past trauma roiling below their just barely placid surface, and alluded to via microflashbacks. Though the setting and the period (sometime in the 70s, per the IMDB summary and a Pat Nixon magazine cover, but I would’ve bought it as 1952 or so based on Roland’s abiding interest in listening to a tinny radio) have that initial European feel, the film comes to resemble a spare short story brought to sometimes-agonizing life, during which the audience must wait for whichever short-story-style revelation: Infidelity? Suicide? Miscarriage? Addiction? Abuse? The answer may surprise you, if only because the agony of its build-up feels more than a little retro. So does its use of its stars to carry the audience through. Pitt has become a terrific actor in his later years, and Jolie brings plenty of charisma to the kind of deep-suffering roles she seems to vastly prefer to anything else. Here, with their earth-toned clothes, hangover sunglasses and, in Pitt’s case, old-fashioned mustache, they certainly look their parts; Looking the Part could be the movie’s alternate title, or summary (the other possibility involves spoiling the short-story revelation, which comes with unbecoming histrionics).

Jolie at least keeps her scenes short; she writes self-consciously punchy stage-play dialogue (sample exchange: “Have a nice day”/”I won’t”), but it keeps things moving, to a point. Her direction has some lovely touches: there’s a cut that removes Vanessa from the frame abruptly and ghostlike, and she frames the separation between Roland and Vanessa with clarity. The scenes where the couple unites to watch another couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) in the hotel room next door through a peephole have a startling intimacy, enough to create the illusion that the movie is heading somewhere interesting. A shame, then, that it heads toward Roland’s novel, reaffirming and stagnating the movie’s evocation of musty literary aspirations. I have no idea if Jolie’s screenplay has any autobiography in it, but despite the stars’ fame (and the clear spectacle of watching real-life married movie stars—who met on a movie set, no less!—act out a disintegrating marriage), it feels very much the opposite, even as the movie plainly traffics in a form of it. When Roland closes his book, the artifice shows itself: By the Sea, whether intentionally or not, is about the process of creating hackneyed literature.

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