Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt play a bickering, unhappy married ‘70s couple in the faux European art house film By the Sea, the third movie Jolie Pitt has directed. For most of the film’s 132 minutes, every one of which screams “vanity project”—in French, of course—our desperate couple stays mute about A Terrible Secret They Share. Instead of talking, they let us wallow in exactly how chic, rich, and utterly miserable they are.
Vanessa, played by Jolie Pitt, is a former dancer who holes up in their ridiculously huge, posh seaside suite in a hotel villa in the south of France. She mopes, smokes, and pops pills. She’s utterly lost and zonked-out, but, somehow always fully made-up, lids heavy with false eyelashes, decked-out befitting Elizabeth Taylor in one of her campier ‘60s European-made efforts with husband Richard Burton.
Meanwhile, Pitt, playing a novelist named Roland, mopes, too, struggling with writer’s block and getting loaded at a café where he cries on the shoulder of the poor proprietor (Niels Arestrup) who’s got troubles of his own. Pitt’s character is also utterly zoned-out, but at least he looks doughy and bleary-eyed as hell, the way his boozy, dissolute piss-ant Hemingway-esque character ought to.
The humorless, icy movie gets a bit of a lift with the arrival of sexy, loose, randy newlyweds (played by Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, both worthier of much better) on whom Vanessa begins peeping through a hole in the wall, eventually joined by Roland. The aging couple laments the passionate duo they once were and things between them begin to shift when they dine and sail with the newly married couple. Even so, the movie just limps along, recycling images of the eternal sea and symbolism so clunky it becomes embarrassing.
Look, there’s no denying that By the Sea is an ambitious, searching, and obviously heartfelt project on Jolie Pitt’s part. The cinematography of Christian Berger (a frequent collaborator of Michael Haneke’s) is lustrous and Gabriel Yared’s musical contributions are properly moody and searching. It’s clear that the writer-director resonates to languidly beautiful, psychologically incisive movies of the ‘60s directed by the masterful likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais. But, as much as we admire Jolie Pitt’s ambition and fortitude in getting an offbeat, grown-up and character-centric movie off the ground, her screenplay and gifts aren’t up to the task. The more strained and glum By the Sea gets, the more pretentious—and unintentionally funny—it feels in that old time Bad Movies We Love way. We’re supposed to feel compassion and empathy for this couple down in the depths of grief and depression but, in the end, it’s only the Pitts.