‘By the Sea’ (2015) Review
Watching By the Sea is a lot like standing on the edge of a beautiful oceanside cliff. The view may be worth it but there’s a worry it could all go bad very quickly. With every frame of Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s latest film, which she wrote and directed, the view is undeniably sumptuous, but the treading along is precarious and when it’s over, it feels like a great fall.
Set in the 1970s, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie-Pitt) have been married for fourteen years. He is a somewhat successful author with a terrible case of writer’s block. She is a former dancer who now lives under his umbrella. They have come to France, by the sea, to rekindle and reconnect, with Roland hoping to become inspired. They rent an apartment in a villa next to a younger couple who reminds Vanessa of themselves. Maybe a little too much. Roland spends his day at a local bar, getting to know the locals while Vanessa loafs around the house in a malaise, smoking and wallowing in self misery.
One day, alone, Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall that gives her a view of the neighbor’s bedroom. She watches and becomes convinced that Roland wants to have sex with the beautiful Leá (Mélanie Laurent), a claim he thoroughly denies and is sure she is saying simply to keep the two of them distant or worse. Things get complicated when Roland discovers the peephole, and not long after, the two learn that their shared love of watching is a sexual aphrodisiac. They sit on the floor with wine and dinner and watch through the opening, finding it a spark in a long dormant marriage. Naturally, with all things we find exciting, escalation has consequences. Things get very, very bad.
Jolie-Pitt has a great eye for detail. Her earlier works, In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) and Unbroken (2014) were also beautifully photographed and directed. There are in these flawed films some truly inspired direction and reveal that Jolie-Pitt is more than competent, she is talented. With By the Sea, she directs herself and seems purposefully intent on making her character unlikable. Vanessa is a loathsome woman who detests everything and everyone and is undeniably suffering from depression, haunted by an incident she and he share that remains a mystery until the end. Jolie-Pitt explores this with long deliberate shots that linger on her lithe figure leaning, lying, sitting and reclining about the lush apartment in various stages of despair. These are inviting at first but become cumbersome soon after. So too does Roland’s frustration, alcohol abuse and ineffectual complaints.
Fortunately, the film finds a better footing when they indulge in the passion the peephole inspires. Jolie-Pitt builds these moments with intrigue and suspense, despite the lack of it narratively. We spend our time trying to guess what has led these two attractive, glamorous lovers to this point and how spying on sex could possibly be the thing that serves as glue. Vanessa is agoraphobic to be sure, and Jolie-Pitt is mostly effective in making that believable with hollow stares and sunken postures. Pitt is also mostly good as a miserable misanthrope, confused by his wife’s peculiar game, but the issue lies not with the actors themselves but who they are.
It is interesting that Jolie-Pitt chose voyeurism as her topic because that is exactly how it feels, like we are looking through the peephole on the real Jolie-Pitt and Pitt, and while that may be the intention, it never allows the viewer to accept the fantasy. Jolie-Pitt wants us to feel uncomfortable, but we don’t go to the movies to see reality. While the two have great chemistry, as demonstrated on the their first film Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), here it feels awkward, and far too personal.
The second problem is the script. While the movie is a work of few words, with most spoken by Roland, there is an oddity about them, and Brad Pitt’s delivery is often wooden. That may be a creative choice, but it weakens the impact and when we do get to the big reveal, tragically undermines the power it should have had. The reveal itself is also somewhat disappointing, feeling a little cheap.
By the Sea is probably a missed opportunity and proves that while Jolie-Pitt is certainly a director with a future, she might do better to stay behind the camera. She excels at building tension and there is true poetry to many of her shots (pay attention to a moment in the bathtub and the sea waves washing ashore below), but the story is ultimately contrived even if it is good to look at. Like a dreary day at the water’s edge, this film may appeal to some but will infuriate others.
Angelina Jolie (as Angelina Jolie Pitt)
Angelina Jolie (as Angelina Jolie Pitt)