'By the Sea'
There’s a chance that, one day, Angelina Jolie will mature into a wonderful director. Thus far, she’s shown that she has an artful eye and plenty of ambition. However, she has yet to really display any sort of distinct voice or a particular knack for the craft of storytelling. Her films are mostly very accomplished imitations of other movies, told with an oddly cold distance. ‘By the Sea’ might be her prettiest and dullest directorial effort to date.
The film is essentially a long homage to the pictorially lovely, listless tedium of Michelangelo Antonioni, starring Angie herself with her husband Brad Pitt. If you like watching beautiful people stare sadly into the distance with the occasional hint of drama to come that never really develops, you’ll be in heaven. For everyone else… well… it looks nice.
Jolie and Pitt play Vanessa and Roland, a woefully unhappy couple who travel to a seaside paradise in 1960s France for one of those “rediscovering ourselves” pity party getaways. He’s a once-successful author who can’t seem to write a word anymore. She’s a former dancer recovering from a secret trauma in her past. He spends all day drinking himself into a self-destructive stupor. She lazes around in beautiful clothing looking off into the distance to properly dwell on her sadness.
Complications arise when a young and recently married couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) check into the room next door. Their youthful contentment and vigorous sex sessions that would inspire jealousy in rabbits manage to make Vanessa and Roland even more destitute. In the movie’s brief flickers of entertainment and humor, the superstars take to spying on the youngsters through a peephole for perverse dinner parties, but soon it’s right back into existential angst, building up to some laughably overblown dramatic reveals.
‘By the Sea’ is rather blatantly patterned on a certain brand of European art film from the ’60s in which beautiful people wandered sadly through stunningly composed frames in the hopes of accidentally stumbling into something cinematically profound. They were trendy in the birth of the art house movement and retain relevance today only because film schools and self-absorbed pretentious people still exist.
Jolie sticks to the clichés of that long lost brand of arty-fartery with a single-minded focus and an obsessive attention to detail. Her images are gorgeous, just in a shampoo-commercial-meets-coffee-shop-intellectualism kind of way. The film’s pacing is languid and endless, in accordance with the homage. The fact that two of the most famous movie stars in the world are at the center of it only proves to be distracting. That’s not to suggest that Pitt or Jolie perform poorly in the film, just that it’s impossible to forget that they’re slumming stars with arty delusions of grandeur.
As the film wears on, Jolie gets playful in some briefly entertaining, kinky and twistedly funny passages where this stuffy bit of cinema momentarily flutters to life. Then, rather than sticking with the art house ambiguity that defines this style of filmmaking, she oddly dips into melodrama and needless explanation to answer all the minor mysteries with an exclamation mark. It all wraps up with an embarrassing reveal and a self-conscious twist that feel more like a student film than a glossy international production.
Make no mistake, the only reason that this movie has received a studio release (even on a modest scale) is because a famous movie star duo are involved. Otherwise, it’s unlikely this thing ever would have seen the light of day. The movie is a deeply self-indulgent exercise from a star just famous and successful enough to turn self-satisfied navel gazing into a studio release.
Three films into her directorial career, it’s still difficult to determine what to make of Angelina Jolie. She clearly knows where to put a camera and how to mount a production. However, all of her films thus far have been imitations of previous styles of cinema executed with precision, but also a coldly impersonal detachment that prevents any emotional connection. They feel like filmmaking assignments from a student who somehow talked a studio into backing her school projects. There’s clearly directorial talent here, but anything resembling an artist’s voice in lost behind mimicry. It’s possible that Jolie will eventually mature into an artist or storyteller behind the camera, but for now she’s merely an expert student. The fact that her fame earned these projects such high profile releases is more irritating than exciting.