The eyes draped with smudged eyeliner after hours of crying. The signature Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses to hide said eyes. A seemingly endless wardrobe of ‘70s Parisian fashion to cover the pain in beauty. A pouty look of callousness. Star, screenwriter and director Angelina Jolie is going to make sure you understand her character Vanessa before she even says one word. These are the sorts of details that Jolie drenches her new drama “By the Sea” with, sadly, indifferent effect.
Set in the mid ‘70s (although we only truly learn that through some magazine covers and their clothes), “Sea” begins with Vanessa and her husband Roland (Jolie’s real life partner Brad Pitt) driving around the hilly coast of what we’re to assume is the South of France (but still looks more like Malta where the film was shot). They arrive at an isolated hotel for a holiday where Roland, a one-time popular writer, will begin work on a new novel and his wife will try to come out of what appears to be a deep and dark depression.
Jolie spends a good amount of screen time chronicling the couple moving their baggage into their ocean side suite and unpacking. It’s intended to artfully indicate how the film’s events will leisurely unspool, but ends up foreshadowing how little perspective Jolie may have over her own material. The film wants very much to harken back to the French and European films of that era, but only her collaborators (such as cinematographer Christian Berger) prevent it from descending into a never-ending stream of clichés.
As the days unfurl, Roland befriends the widowed owner of a bar he increasingly drowns his frustrations in (a steady Niels Arestrup) and Vanessa can barely get herself from the bed to the balcony deck chair. When she eventually takes a walk down to the local grocery (it’s impossible to survive on wine and cigarettes alone) she encounters the two adorable daughters of the shopkeeper. Vanessa’s indifferent stare at both of them pretty much telegraphs her pain leaving little mystery left to anyone paying attention as to why she’s in such a funk to begin with.
The film struggles in this first act as Jolie repeats the same emotional notes between Roland and Vanessa again and again. He can’t understand why she won’t be the woman he spent 14 years adoring and she’s formed a cold wall between them almost blaming him for her pain. Pitt is shockingly bad in some of these scenes and you being to wonder where all of this is going. Luckily, a newly married couple, Francois (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Mélanie Laurent) arrive to celebrate their honeymoon at the same hotel just in time.
Francois and Lea are acutely everything Roland and Vanessa are not. They passionately display their affection for each other and are almost intrudingly friendly to their American neighbors. You can see the seeds of where Jolie is going with this, but it’s certainly more engrossing than what we’ve encountered so far. Considering the blasé pacing Jolie surprisingly doesn’t waste much time having Roland verbalize a potential jealousy of the couple who are conveniently staying in the suite right next door to their own. When Roland and Vanessa both admit that they are aware of a hole in the wall that allows them to peek into Francois and Lea’s room the proceedings take a welcome turn for Patricia Highsmith territory. (It’s also worth noting Pitt brings much more subtlety and nuance to Roland in this portion of the film.)
Whether conscious of it or not Vanessa ends up starting a dangerous game with both Lea and Francois that has major repercussions for both couples. Again, it’s somewhat predictable, but the presence of Laurent and Poupaud are such a breathe of fresh air that it at least indicates that the film won’t descend into just a portrait of a sad woman who refuses to move on from her not-so mysterious tragedy.
The adult shenanigans aside, Vanessa’s journey is truly the central thrust of the picture and when Jolie gives her any reason to smile you see the hint of a three-dimensional character coming to life. The Oscar winner eventually reveals a tender, vulnerable side to Vanessa, but it almost feels like we’re missing another level of truth in her performance. At the moment when Jolie the director needs it the most, the gut-wrenching pain she conveyed in “A Mighty Heart” and “Changeling” is missing here. Different pictures, different characters, obviously, but Jolie needs that one note of realism to break through this fantasy world Roland and Vanessa are living in. By the time the third act revelation appears not only are you not surprised, you are more likely to sympathize with Lea and Francois for being pawns of Vanessa’s strange manipulations more than anything else.
“Sea” might be an unbearable slog at times without the aforementioned stunning contributions of Berger (“The White Ribbon”) whose framing is quite impressive and Gabriel Yared’s passionate score that often brings the proceedings extra life. Ellen Mirojnick’s costume design is also noteworthy even if it’s hard to believe Vanessa never wears the same ensemble twice during the couple’s long stay.
Many will view “Sea” through the prism of Jolie and Bitt’s public relationship and that would be a mistake. Before the film premiered at AFI Film Fest Jolie noted that at its core the film was about grief and that grief was about the loss of her mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who passed away from cancer in 2007. When it comes down to it the character’s on screen marriage is less important than whether Vanessa will come out of her shell. It’s unfortunate that by the end of the proceedings you simply do not care.
“By the Sea” opens in limited release on Nov. 13.