Just how do we picture the private lives of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt? When Brad were to, say, wind along the Mediterranean coast in a top down convertible with Serge Gainsbourg lilting on the radio, would that do the trick?
The spell, nevertheless, is broken when they reach the water.
“I smell fish,” says Jolie Pitt’s Vanessa, stepping out of the vehicle.
The 1970s seaside setting could scarcely be enchanting, but something is rotten. Childless and married, Roland, a struggling writer, and Vanessa, a former dancer, arrive – not with the jaunty lightness – but as if seeking a shore on which to hurl their union that is on-the-rocks.
After checking into their hotel suite, they instantly, wordlessly start placing the desk and rearranging the furniture.
They immediately settle into an odd routine: Roland spends his days drinking together with the neighborhood bartender (the outstanding Niels Arestrup) and neglecting to write, while Vanessa mopes around the hotel room. They talk little, in fraught exchanges that refer only vaguely to the prior trauma.
They can be in, as Roland says, a “second-period life,” long past the new excitement of the early years together and no longer the famed gifts they once were. Lacking footing that is sure, Vanessa look enviously around them – especially in the honeymooning couple (Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) .
Both couples befriend each other. Vanessa’s interest, though, is piqued by way of a hole in the wall that lets her spy to their room. The voyeurism stirred and aroused her, snapping her from her grief. It’s certainly a great irony that among the most well-known girls in the planet has made a movie so much about the titillations of watching and being viewed as well as the maladies.
As a film, the euro retro “By the Sea” – a kind of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” transplanted to Eric Rohmer’s France – is too limp, too artfully posed to work. The single-tear moments of sadness, the overdone presence of theatrical props (so many smokes and hats!) And the sometimes stilted dialogue make to get a curiously wooden feeling that stifles the appreciable star-power of Pitt and Jolie Pitt.
Pitt’s Hemingway esque writer, occasionally speaking French, comes through more clearly. But Jolie Pitt’s Vanessa, controlled and porcelain, does justice to Vanessa’s all-consuming grief but her performance doesn’t supply the power it needs to the melodrama.
However, as a fascination and an experiment, “By the Sea” is an interesting artifact and an extraordinary bookend to their preceding portrait of matrimony, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” To label it a “vanity project,” as some have done, is an injustice.
“By the Sea,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG 13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “powerful sexuality, nudity and language.”