By the Sea is not a film for everyone. For an hour or so, it doesn’t even feel like a film at all so much as a 132-minute perfume ad; a two-hour-plus Vogue shoot in stereo; an almost microscopic view of the pores, particles, and presence of one of the most famous women in the world. It takes a mighty amount of charisma to make Brad Pitt feel like an afterthought, but Angelina Jolie, who wrote and directed the movie, and who stars as one half of its central married couple, makes no bones about the fact that she’s the star here—and rightly so, given that it’s hard to imagine By the Sea being anything but insufferable with a less magnetic actress as its focal point.
Jolie is canny enough to recognize that beauty frequently trumps endeavor in art, and By the Sea is extraordinarily sumptuous, exploring the physical qualities of its stars and their surroundings in almost voyeuristic detail. At the film’s opening, Roland Bertrand (Pitt) and his wife, Vanessa (Jolie), are driving in a vintage silver Citroen convertible through the French countryside, she in a leopard-print fur hat and YSL shades, he sporting a porn-star mustache and an air of unease. When they finally arrive at the seaside hotel they’ve booked for a lengthy stay, they bring with them all the accoutrements of luxury travel born by the extraordinarily privileged: Louis Vuitton luggage, stacks of hat boxes, couture nightgowns, and marital tension that cuts through the briny air like a straight razor.
The movie is set in the 1970s, but it takes a while to pinpoint the era, given the sheer extravagance of old-world glamour stretched out across the frame. And for the first hour of the movie, that’s pretty much all there is, as the camera lingers on Vanessa’s furious desolation and Roland’s alcoholic escapism. (There’s a tiny moment of levity when Roland tries to make nice with the owner of a bar beneath the hotel as they check in, and Vanessa, painfully fretful, downs her verre de vin blanc in a single gulp.) The elephant in the room is a traumatic event that’s hinted at but not spelled out, even though it’s fairly obvious. Vanessa weeps silent tears, guzzles pills, and takes solace in a series of ridiculously fabulous diaphanous robes; maybe a full third of the movie consists of scenes of her lounging on a sunchair, clutching a magazine, so in thrall to ennui and despair that she can barely hold her cigarette.
This kind of self-indulgent misery and poisonous anguish is, depending on your perspective, either absurdly overwrought or a hallmark of the French New Wave. Certainly, it’s an ambitious project for a still-green filmmaker, and one that’s enhanced by its $10 million budget, and by the lavish cinematography of Christian Berger. Jolie’s direction isn’t just confident, it’s brazen: The movie has the audacity to proceed at a truly glacial pace for the first half and waddle only slightly faster toward a conclusion in the second. But there’s true pleasure to be mined from the visual elements on display, from the treacherous landscape surrounding the hotel (Malta, standing in from the South of France) to the opulence of the gilded cage Vanessa confines herself in.
Still, By the Sea isn’t purely superficial, particularly when Vanessa and Roland become interested in the couple staying in the room next door, Lea and François (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). When Vanessa discovers a peephole, she begins watching them when Roland goes to the bar. Her voyeurism is, in uncomfortable ways, mimicked by the audience, whose primary motivation for watching the film is surely to observe the real-life couple onscreen (the last time Jolie and Pitt were together in a movie was a decade ago in Mr. and Mrs. Smith). Jolie is canny enough to implicate us in her character’s curiosity about the young, vibrant honeymooners in the next room—about their lovemaking, sure, but also their more banal moments, like how they celebrate their two-month anniversary, or how François wants Lea to do her hair. She surely knows that when it comes to curiosity about beautiful people in love, no detail fails to intrigue.
The problem is that Roland and Vanessa, by contrast, are dull—their relationship is only slightly enlivened by what becomes a shared tendency for staring through the peephole, and bizarrely, they have no chemistry whatsoever. The main flaw in Jolie’s direction is the performance given by her husband, who’s wooden at best and hopelessly unconvincing in his worst scenes. Pitt has proved himself to be an capable actor in the past, so maybe his defiant refusal to really connect with his Jolie in scenes comes from a desire to hold something back: to not expose any more of himself and his relationship than he has to.
Perhaps the movie could have been more of a success with a different actor, and a couple less determined to show that their marriage really is nothing like what’s happening onscreen. Perhaps it’s an expensive, long-simmering vanity project (Jolie has been working on the screenplay since her mother’s death eight years ago, and Roland and Vanessa in fact share her mother’s surname, Bertrand). But it’s a fascinating experiment, and proof that Jolie truly has directorial chops and an extraordinary eye for imagery. Since art house is particularly lacking when it comes to female auteurs, it’s at the very least reassuring that there’s a woman with the authority and the self-possession to get something like this made.