The Troubled, Troubling By the Sea’s Power Sneaks Up on You

Roland (BRAD PITT) and Vanessa (ANGELINA JOLIE PITT) try to reconnect in “By the Sea”. Photo: Merrick Morton/Universal Studios

It would be easy to dismiss Angelina Jolie-Pitt’s By the Sea as an arty, embarrassing vanity project. (Here’s a free headline for you: “It’s the Pitts!”) At times, the film practically seems to beg for it. A marital drama filled with long, immaculately shot pauses and often tin-eared dialogue, it’s perplexing and wildly imperfect. But there’s something here that’s quite powerful if you get on its wavelength. Call it a very personal longing to connect. This is an intimate, troubled, troubling movie, and as such not made for the multiplex, or for the endless hype-and-demolish whirligigs of the media cycle. Or maybe it is. More on that later.

The troubled couple here are the unhappily married Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), who arrive for a getaway in a remote, elegant French seaside town. The period is not specified. The music we hear is from the '60s, the attire seems like a combination of post-war casual and early-'70s loungewear, while Roland’s typewriter feels practically ancient. (At one point, I became briefly convinced we were heading for a Shyamalanian twist and that someone would pull out an iPhone.) He’s a writer, she’s a former dancer, but he spends most of his days at the local bar failing to write, while she hangs out in their hotel room failing to move. We don’t know the reasons behind their alienation, but their current dynamic is clear. He wants to spend time together, to reconnect with his wife; she won’t let him touch her, though, apparently out of some deep sense of self-loathing. But there’s also a studied quality to her despair: In one wonderful shot, she lounges in impeccably despondent repose, as if rehearsing her anguish, or maybe auditioning for a Luchino Visconti film.

Their icy reverie isn’t exactly interrupted by Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), a newlywed couple who arrive next door, but at least the drudgery of their days is broken up – especially when Vanessa discovers a peephole in their hotel room wall that allows them to spy on the younger couple’s endless, acrobatic lovemaking. Slowly, quietly, she and Roland start to bond over their mutual voyeurism; that little peephole becomes a glimpse into the people they themselves once were. But it’s also one little hole in a big wall, and Jolie as director shoots it as such. As we watch her watch them, we understand that this small window into another world is defined by how little it actually shows us.

There isn’t much story in By the Sea, or even incident. Vanessa and Roland’s estrangement is one of avoidance, not confrontation, and Jolie has built her movie around repetition, tedium, suffocation. But you keep watching not just because she and Brad and the Mediterranean are beautiful, but also because small, surprising details start to take on great importance. Vanessa’s constantly smoky eyes may seem like a bad movie makeup job, but they might also remind you of a poster that’s been defaced – as if she’s tried to carve out her own eyes. (So much of one’s response to this movie will depend on what one thinks of Jolie-Pitt, I suspect; the whole movie is sort of a Rorschach test.) Likewise, the couple’s physical alienation from each other speaks not of punishment or lack of attraction, but of a deep sense of shame. It’s all building up to something, but the ultimate reason behind Roland and Vanessa’s marital anguish feels somewhat mundane, not because it isn’t important, but because its specificity doesn’t match the film’s universal sense of desolation. The often silly dialogue, which at times feels like it came right out of a Bad Hemingway contest, doesn’t help either.

The troubled-couple-in-a-beautiful-but-alien-setting drama has a storied past, from Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (made with his then-scandal-ridden muse, Ingrid Bergman) to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, to Godard’s Contempt, to Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky, to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, where the alien setting was New York itself. Looking back on these titles, it’s interesting how many of them were dismissed at the time, or at least proved deeply divisive. (American reviewers pretty much laughed away the Rossellini, while a generation of French critics recognized it as history-changing, and battles continue to rage over Kubrick’s final film.) This kind of alienation is very hard to portray, and usually it takes time for it to sink in; the measure of such films’ accomplishment sometimes has less to do with their immediate impact and more with their ability to grow in our eyes over time.

No, I’m not exactly comparing By the Sea to Contempt or L’Avventura or Voyage to Italy – it’s way, way too uneven for that – but it does share with them an ability to take on a life of its own, to seize the mind. And like them it has a certain self-reflectiveness: What comes through most in the film is the interplay of longing and withholding on a directorial level. Here is one of the most recognized, admired, derided, speculated-upon women on the planet making a movie with her equally high-profile husband, about a troubled marriage. She knows that the world will be watching the movie for clues into their actual relationship. She knows that the rawer she gets, the more of a feeding frenzy it’ll create. The film’s opacity, therefore, feels deliberate. That peephole through which Roland and Vanessa spy on Lea and Francois has a stylistic corollary: the movie screen through which we spy on Angie and Brad. Just like that peephole, this screen hides more than it reveals.