I like Angelina Jolie. I really, really do. She's smart, she's determined, and she makes films that many other directors would shy away from. She's not afraid of the passion project, in fact, one could say her entire filmmaking career has been entirely that, to this point.
And maybe that's the exact reason I have yet to truly love any of her films, despite desperately wanting to.
On paper, By the Sea sounded like a challenging story to tell, but one that could be deeply moving if handled the right way. But it suffers from the same problem that all of Jolie's films have suffered from — it's too perfect. As a technical director, Jolie is almost flawless. Her films are always stunning to look at, and the detail in everything, from the lighting to the right angles to the costumes, is always masterful. Unfortunately, the rigidity of her technical perfection often comes at the expense of the emotional component, and By the Sea is no exception.
For the first hour, the film is so beautiful that you don't mind the slow pace, the endless languidity with which the story unfolds. Every shot is gorgeous, particularly Jolie, whose shocking beauty is heightened by the doe-eyed mod style of the late 60s/early 70s in which the story is set. She's so ethereal that her looks can sometimes be distracting, but in this case, they serve her well. Vanessa is a fragile, broken creature who survives on sleeping pills, white wine, and bitterness. She spends a large portion of the movie holding herself still or flinching at the prospect of physical contact, and Jolie's performance brings to mind every animal trying to make itself smaller so as to not be noticed, every cringing dog or hissing cat whose spirit has been broken.
As her loyal but conflicted husband, Roland, Brad Pitt is slightly more relatable and sympathetic a character. He has no idea what to make of his wife's self-estrangement or how to break past her fear of intimacy and his mounting frustration is evident in every impatient sigh, in every time that he gives up on a conversation and leaves the room. Much like the audience, he keeps trying over and over again to connect to Nessa, to no avail. So he turns to gin to numb the hurt, and some of his best scenes are the ones between Roland and bartender, Michel (Niels Arestrup), a grieving widower who gives Roland both the perspective and conviction to not give up on Nessa as their marriage falls apart.
This is the first film that Jolie and Pitt have acted in together since Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and there are moments in the film, where they share a laugh, or a look, or he snaps at her in exasperation, where you can't help but feel you're getting a doubly intimate glimpse into a couples' life together - first as an on-screen fictional couple, and then as they are in reality. It's fitting, as what eventually brings the couple closer again is a shared love of voyeurism. When newlywed couple, Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud) become their next-door hotel neighbors, Nessa becomes obsessed with spying on them, the symbols of all she and Roland once had and then lost. Her obsession is a bit mystifying, as Lea and Francois are not particularly all that interesting.
Sadly, there is too little emotion to make the movie really work. Languid storytelling is fine - letting the story lag for so long that it never goes anywhere is not. The reveal about the traumatic experience that changed Nessa is both unsurprising - there are obvious clues to it all throughout the movie - and too late. By the time we come to the turning point of the film and her confession, it's anticlimactic, and evokes less a shocked, sympathetic response than a shrug.
As a piece of storytelling, it falls flat. If you are in it for a compelling story or characters, it is one to skip. But as an art form and a piece of flawless cinematography, By the Sea is well worth a watch and I'd recommend it to anyone who can look past the narrative inertia for the visuals alone. It is a master class on how to craft the technical aspects of a film, if not the story of one.
You'll find By the Sea in select theaters beginning today.