I’m not usually one to bring up a films opening line as a guide to that particular films quality, however, the opening line to Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s By the Sea is a corker. And I don’t use the word corker all that often. In fact, I despise the word corker. But, it’s worthwhile utilising a word I don’t like here for a film like By the Sea. Anyhow, corkers aside, the opening line of the film, as Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s Vanessa steps out of a soon-to-be-rusted-out car next to the sea (one could say, by the sea, even): “It smells like fish”.
From there, we are witness to a (somewhat vague) deconstruction of marriage, of celebrity, of the idea of desirability. Angelina wrote, directed and stars here alongside husband Brad Pitt. They play married couple Vanessa and Roland who are visiting a seaside hotel in Italy to regroup and allow Roland to write a book. Something happened prior to this journey that causes Vanessa to be vacant and non-reactive – well, that’s my understanding of Jolie-Pitt’s performance as that’s really the only explanation I can give for her wide eyed deer in the headlights like performance.
Coming to a film where the two leads are some of the most photographed celebrities in the world, and married under well publicized circumstances, you can’t help but feel slightly perverse watching them go about their lives here. There’s an almost ABBA sense of ‘watching me watching you, aha’ here when Vanessa finds a hole in a the hotel wall where she watches the neighbours fucking. We are watching the Pitt’s go about their lives and ‘enjoying’ it with a glass of wine and a platter of cheese. And maybe that’s the point of this film.
I say ‘maybe’ because a lot of this film is very vague. This was the first of Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s directorial films that I’ve seen, and it being her third film I had assumed that there would be a voice of a director – or at least an imitation of a voice – with the film. As it is, the worst crime this film has is that it’s so supremely devoid of any kind of personality. Especially given this is the first theatrical appearance of her hyphenated surname (due to her marriage with Brad Pitt) and given the exploration of marriage within the film. It’s not as if Jolie-Pitt hasn’t worked with great directors – surely she could have pulled from her experience with working with Clint Eastwood or Michael Winterbottom and imitated their style in some ways. (When writing up this review, I seriously thought that Angelina had worked with ‘bigger’ directors, but nope, Eastwood is as high as it gets. That’s saying something. Even Cameron Diaz has worked with Scorsese.)
As it is, By the Sea is a series of nice visuals and pleasant costumes. Which is frustrating as there is an interesting kernel of an idea here, especially when combined with the lead cast. What By the Sea feels like it’s attempting to do is give an assessment of celebrity life from the view of the celebrity. The desire for this ‘celebrity’ couple (Roland is a ‘great’ writer and Vanessa used to be a ‘great’ dancer) to understand the pleb lifestyle of the regular citizen, and in fact, draw pleasure from their life, is an interesting subject. However, with ‘character’ observations like Vanessa’s comment about the fisherman who goes out to sea every day and doesn’t catch fish, ‘what does it take to just not kill yourself?’, you can’t help but feel slightly disgusted. He doesn’t ‘kill himself’ simply because this is his life, this is the world he lives in.
Maybe there is a hint of looking into the potential pain that people live with and sometimes the burden of that pain, however, again, it’s something that is never really hinted at. Vanessa goes for walks some days near the cliffs and for a moment I thought that Jolie-Pitt was trying to allude to her character wanting to dash herself against the rocks, but that never really eventuates. She simply walks around with her pouty lips looking like a fish who is transfixed by the child that keeps tapping on its bowl. She never emotes enough to build a character, and when she does ’emote’, it’s with almost makeup-like applied tears and a brief whimper. I’ve never been one to think that Angelina Jolie-Pitt was a good actress, I have always found that she is simply someone who looks good and has succeeded because of that. But maybe if someone else directed this, things would be different. I’m not sure exactly what – in the realm of cinema – Jolie-Pitt has done to warrant this pedestal level adoration and black cheque ability to do whatever film she desires to direct.
Their voyeuristic obsessive watching of Melanie Laurent’s character and newly wed husband’s daily love making brings about the most interesting moments of the film. These people on the other side of the hole in the wall appear to have a better life than they do, and that thought alone inspires some awkward bath bound love making (given an extra level of perversion given the real life marriage of the Pitt’s). It’s a ‘grass is always greener’ look at love with the plebs having a vibrant love, and the celebrities being sad and depressed. Call me cynical, but the feeling of ‘see, we have feelings too! See, we’re people too!’ is hard to shake.
To compliment the film a little, this film never becomes a film to laugh at. Although it has a well earned chuckle along the way as Vanessa and Roland decide to get the newly married couple exceptionally drunk so they can see what kind of kinky things they get up to under the influence of booze – yet, here you’re laughing with the film. The resulting action is both amusing and sad. It’s frustrating then that this moment takes a good hour to reach as it gives the film a much needed bump in personality.
I should stress, whilst this is not a good film, it’s not an excessively bad film either. It is quite watchable – a fact that may be because of the aforementioned voyeuristic aspect of seeing Brad and Angelina displaying aspects of their marriage on the big screen. The 60’s era setting draws comparisons to the real life couples making big screen appearances in films. Yet, through all of this, the supreme lack of personality and lack of ability to tell this intriguing enough story in an intriguing enough manner hurts this film. I’m not sure if Jolie-Pitt will direct again, but I wouldn’t be against seeing someone else direct her in a script that she has written. As it is, By the Sea is a curious look at celebrities looking out at us looking in.
Maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe it was just an excuse to be paid to go to Italy and have a nice vacation.
Director: Angelina Jolie-Pitt
Cast: Angelina Jolie-Pitt, Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud
Writer: Angelina Jolie-Pitt