Wednesday, November 11, 2015

By the Sea (AFI Fest 2015)

A vanity project that may have been made only because its stars are two of the world's most recognizable people, there's a good — or least interesting— movie buried deep within By the Sea. Unfortunately, what writer/director/star Angelina Jolie Pitt ends up with is a meandering, drawn out, and often tedious exploration of a struggling marriage that, while intended to evoke European art films of the '60s and '70s, ultimately evokes little more than drowsiness.

By the Sea
Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Starring: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud

Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) are married Americans who move into a seaside hotel in Malta in the 1970s. He's a writer ostensibly there to pen a new novel, but he mostly just sits around at the local bar and drinks the days away. She's a former dancer who's incredibly depressed about a traumatic event in the couple's recent past, the wounds still so fresh she'll hardly even look at her husband, let alone touch him. And so commences two hours of apprehensive looks, passive aggressive behavior, and a seemingly endless string of days, one after the next, in which little to nothing happens. One of the film's biggest missteps is playing up what happened to these two as a mystery, since even the most novice moviegoer can guess the source of their marital woes within the first few scenes. When it's later the center of a big reveal, the audience is too bored to care.

The locations are admittedly jaw-droppingly beautiful, as are the actors themselves, including Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud as a vivacious newlywed couple on their honeymoon who take the room next door. One day, lounging on an armchair, Vanessa discovers a small hole in the wall that allows her to peek into the neighboring room, and she begins watching the couple. For her, it's like looking into an alternate life — or perhaps even a past one — as the happy younger couple constantly and lovingly have sex. Eventually Roland discovers the same hole and he and Vanessa end up spying on the couple together, striking up a loose friendship with the newlyweds outside of their rooms as they all eat at the hotel's cafe and go sailing on their boat. (Even the sex, which is supposed to be titillating, loses its impact after a while because Roland and Vanessa watch them so often.) The meta aspect of Pitt and Jolie Pitt, two of the most photographed and spied on people in human history, becoming voyeurs themselves is an interesting one, but that's about where the fascination with this film ends.

A sumptuously shot movie that appears to have been dragged through a beige color palette, By the Sea unfortunately doesn't offer much insight into the central relationship of the two characters or into the lives of the two leads themselves, rendering it a mostly inert character study that drags on for far too long to justify its existence.

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