“I smell fish.” – Angelina Jolie Pitt’s Vanessa, moments after she and her husband arrive at a French town on the Mediterranean coast.
Writer-director-star Angelina Jolie Pitt’s “By the Sea” is awfully pretty and mostly dreadful.
It’s pretty dreadful.
The first mistake Jolie Pitt the director made was to move forward with her own screenplay, which features two dull leading characters sleepwalking through an extended vacation that’s all about him getting drunk, her self-medicating with pills — and the two of them spewing frustration, distaste and sometimes outright loathing for one another.
“We HAVE to stop being such a——-,” Pitt’s Roland says to his wife during a rare semi-tender moment.
She laughs. We merely shake our heads and say, “Too late, kids.”
“By the Sea” is set in the 1970s, and Jolie Pitt wildly overdoes it with the oversized glasses and the oversized hat and the period-piece fashion — and the cover-of-Vogue makeup and hair she sports even when she’s in a near-catatonic state in bed, or lolling in the bathtub or on the balcony of their hotel suite, staring off into the abyss.
Roland is a writer who most have had some early success, judging by the cut of his jib and the Euro-cool rental car and the gorgeous, spacious hotel suite, which opens onto the sea and provides a breathtaking view.
Once Roland and Vanessa arrive on the scene, they silently move the furniture about to their liking, and unpack their bags, which include some trinkets from their home in New York City. (Clearly they’re going to be here for a long while.) Roland sets up his typewriter at a desk overlooking the sea — but every morning, he tucks his notebook into the back of his pants and trundles down to the bar, where he quaffs multiple gins and ignores his writing, choosing instead to commiserate with the kindly old barkeep (Niels Arestrup) who is still in mourning over his wife.
(Both Pitts speak impressive French in the film. Brad in particular seems to be enjoying his casual Francais conversations with the local townsfolk.)
Vanessa, we learn, was once quite the star of the stage. Now she spends her days popping pills, speaking in robotic monotones and waiting for Roland to return to the room so they can bicker.
When a honeymooning couple (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) arrive on the scene with in such unsubtle fashion they might as well be holding up a sign proclaiming “PLOT DEVICE” and they take the room next door, Vanessa discovers a peephole with a convenient view of the bed.
NOW Vanessa’s got a hobby.
Roland and Vanessa have been married for 14 years. They’re miserable. For nearly two hours, “By the Sea” hints at something dark and tragic in their past, all the while giving us the wise and ancient heartbroken widower as a symbol of Roland’s possible future, and the cooing, sexually carnivorous young couple as reminders of how things once were between Roland and Vanessa.
Jolie Pitt the director confines a great deal of the action to the hotel suite, but when the characters venture out, the scenery is gorgeous and bright and beautiful and of a paradise — and a striking contrast to the darkness that envelopes Roland and Vanessa. The score and some of the cinematography are vaguely reminiscent of late-period Hitchcock, but what this film could use is a good old-fashioned murder or two, or at least a double-cross or twisted mystery.
As for the performances: Jolie Pitt delivers some of the more uninspired work of her career, veering from making kitten-like whimpers when she’s sad to turning on the waterworks far too many times. With his little porkpie hats and his cheesy ’70s ‘stache and his drunken antics, Pitt has a few choice moments, but like everyone else in this film, he’s sunk by the words he has to say and the long, long, LONG stretches where nothing much of anything happens.
Universal Picturespresents a film written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt. Running time: 122minutes. Rated R (for strong sexuality, nudity, and language). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre Cinema.