Mark Reviews Movies

By the Sea


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt

Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup

MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexuality, nudity, and language)

Running Time: 2:02

Release Date: 11/13/15 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 12, 2015

A miserable married couple spends some time apart while together at a resort along the French coastline in By the Sea, a curious movie that can't decide if it wants to be enigmatic or forthright. It works better as the former, although one spends the entire movie anticipating and dreading the inevitable moment when it will become the latter.

The hook is that the married couple in the movie is played by the real husband-and-wife pairing of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt, the second of whom also wrote and directed the movie. The little snoop in the mind of each of us begins to wonder, of course (One imagines every interview the couple gives for the publicity tour for the movie will include a question like, "Are you two doing alright?"), and the movie does ensure that we're constantly thinking about the concept of voyeurism.

See, there comes a point when the miserable partners seem to be reaching some sort of stable ground. That point just happens to be when they're spying a newlywed couple that is on their honeymoon, working day and night to have a baby.

It's a clever, if undeveloped, idea. We're watching a famous couple, playing a previously famous couple, on a giant screen attached to a wall as they're watching a couple of relative nobodies through a tiny hole in the wall of their hotel room. It makes you think, huh? What it makes you, specifically, think about is entirely your prerogative. What it's supposed to make us—the audience "us"—think about isn't particularly clear. There's something there, and maybe the exploration of that notion is what's missing here.

There is a big something missing here, too. Let's be clear on that point. It's not what has caused the divide between this couple. There's nothing wrong with a lingering question in that department, because there likely isn't a simple, clear-cut answer to that question anyway. These are people who have been married for 14 years. A lot can happen to two people as individuals and as a couple in far less time. We should be allowed to accept that as an unavoidable reality for these characters.

Jolie Pitt's screenplay doesn't allow us to take this couple's misery at face value, though. Instead, she presents us with a nearly completed puzzle and spends over two hours dangling the last piece just out of focus and out of reach. It's a tease. If only we could see and get our hands on that last crooked fragment of the whole picture, we would understand what's happening here. We would know, without a shadow of a doubt, why these characters are the way they are.

That way of thinking isn't fair to Roland (Pitt), an author suffering from a major case of writer's block, and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), a former dancer who aged out of the profession. It certainly isn't fair to us.

The movie is at its best when it simply follows these characters in their developing routine. It follows Roland as he returns day after day and night after night to the local café run by Michel (Niels Arestrup), a wise old man who wants to help this American realize what he has before it's too late, and it follows Vanessa as she whittles away the hours in their hotel room.

Roland drinks to excess, and Vanessa pops pills that leave her in a daze. When they're together, they're usually exchanging passive-aggressive or downright cruel insults.

A newlywed couple named Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) check into the room next to theirs, and Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall that looks into the neighbors' most intimate space. She occasionally spies on them, but the temptation grows fiercer as things with Roland become worse. Eventually, he gets in on the game, too, believing that their shared voyeuristic activity will bring back something to their marriage.

The movie is methodically paced, although it's not quite as precise with its characters. That's another symptom of the central mystery here. The screenplay has to hide what it sees as the cause of the rift between Roland and Vanessa, which means it doesn't have an opportunity to explore these characters in any significant way until the final revelation emerges (Jolie Pitt hints at it with some flashes to Vanessa's mind, and they're both too little—because we'll get the information eventually—and too much—because it's unnecessary). By that point, it's far too late.

The performances are solid, and the lead actors bring just enough variety to their characters' individual and shared misery to keep it from becoming stale. The locations are stunning to behold (Malta stands in for France), although that might undercut what's happening here. It feels a little on-the-nose that these people are miserable even while surrounded by such beauty.

It's the inevitability of that final revelation that really hinders By the Sea. We know it's coming, and we know it won't meet the expectations the movie has for it, because there's no way it will be anything we hadn't anticipated and no way it will adequately sum up these characters' experiences. It isn't, and it doesn't.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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