By KOURTNEY PARANTEAU
For the three or four of you who’ve caught yourself thinking, “I wish perfume ads were longer and had more characters,” then Angelina Jolie’s third directorial feature, By The Sea will answer this plea precisely.
As a director, Jolie traffics in big, heaving melodramas (In the Land of Blood and Honey, Unbroken) and By the Sea is no different. While her previous films both deal with war (Bosnian and WW II, respectively) her latest picture narrows its sight on the civil war between a married couple, portrayed by Jolie herself and her actual husband, Brad Pitt.
Set in the mid 1970s, Vanessa (Jolie), an ex-dancer, and Roland (Pitt), a has-been writer, leave their home in New York City and travel to France’s picturesque countryside in hopes of reviving their marriage and Roland’s creativity. Instead, the pair bickers and drinks endlessly. She spends her days in a catatonic state inside their luxury hotel, and he downs gin after gin while facing blank notebooks and closing bars. Midway through their stay, young honeymooners, Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francoise (Melvil Poupaund), move next door and the couple finally reconnect over a shared voyeurism for their gleeful neighbors. Like last year’s While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach), By the Sea’s leads are captivated by a couple whose youthfulness and idealism they remember and envy.
While Jolie sets her sight on other films centered on the unraveling of a marriage (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Faces, Blue Valentine, Before Midnight but most of all, Contempt), she never allows Vanessa and Roland to plummet completely into their own despicableness. She always retrieves them before they’re entirely lost to each other, leaving the movie both without a speck of humor and useless even to its own premise.
It’s a shame that in a film she’s written directed and stars in, no small feat in any regard, Jolie’s own character is so pitifully underdrawn. Even in films where she essentially portrays just a body (Tomb Raider, Salt), she’s not reduced to the lifeless heap of teased hair and fake eyelashes she appears here. The roles of sex object and/or action star at least require movement, life and voice; but here Jolie strips herself of almost all agency for the sorrow of a dated value and a reduction of the female body above all other depreciation. Disappointingly, By the Sea is yet another Hollywood picture that believes there is no greater, irrecoverable torment than a woman who cannot bear children (Prometheus, The Avengers: Age of Ulrton).
By the Sea, like fragrance commercials, is overly esoteric because it cannot convey with visuals what it is trying to sell. Vanessa’s past trauma, like a scent, floats discreetly above the narrative, but the details of the event remain, for most of the film, hidden from the audience and impossible to explain. In place of disclosure, Jolie fills her film with languid shots of herself sunbathing while blankly staring into space, walking aimlessly as she presumably contemplates suicide, and sitting up in bed ambiguously crying.
Surely an imitation of Europe’s finest flâneurs of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti, Jolie’s wanderings diminish her interiority instead of prying it open, and By the Sea ultimately unravels into another story where a woman’s suffering results in her partner’s vitality. The backdrop of 1970s France seems more about obscuring flaws in the film than informing or imbuing the film with a sense of self. If only Jolie ingrained her characters with more personhood, the film might have kept the stride it eventually finds midway through the film.
As Lea and Francoise’s orbit circles Vanessa and Roland’s in closer proximity, the film, for an act, keeps a beat rhythmic enough to pleasurably follow along. But as Jolie insists on interrogating Roland and Vanessa’s overall goodness, the film loses focus and again remembers the nonsense held together loosely only by the beauty it began with.