Anyone can tell you that marriage is not easy. There are ups and downs, hardships and struggles in any relationship. The secrets a couple keeps from each other can be suffocating, destructive, and can corrode a union from within. Then there’s the constant strain to achieve perfection, even when everything has gone to waste.
By the Sea is that waste.
Sloppily written but delightfully directed by Angelina Jolie-Pitt, By the Sea reunites the actress with her Mr. and Mrs. Smith co-star and real life husband, Brad Pitt. Together they are Vanessa and Roland, an absolutely miserable couple who are vacationing in Malta after an unknown tragedy has eroded away the couple’s happiness, chemistry and dialogue. Trapped in the mundane life of existing without living, Roland has succumbed to becoming an alcoholic writer who appears to have found more comfort in a bottle than by putting words on a page. “Nessa” who was once a dancer has now settled for a life of sulking, moaning, and being filled with jealousy. Jealous of what exactly is not known, and while it’s not the heart of the story, finding out would have made the audience care during the brief moments when they aren’t dead asleep.
By the Sea is a beautifully filmed movie, with breathtaking images of the seaside. The movie mainly takes place inside of a peaceful villa which has a view of the deep rich blue seas. Instead of taking advantage of this illustrious scenery, the audience is forced to watch Jolie-Pitt lounge about the room or on the balcony, channeling her inner Bella Swan in various positions on a chair. Pitt is shoved inside a café where he spends time getting drunk or sulking at his empty notepad waiting for a thought to pop into his head, much like the audience waiting for a plot to pop into this movie.
The saving grace of Pitt’s scenes comes in the form of a 65-year old Frenchman names Michel (Niels Arestrup) who is the owner of the café Pitt frequents. As Roland sulks about issues still unknown (and the audience is losing), he starts to befriend Michel who dispenses advice, suavely stealing scenes right from under Pitt.
When the couple isn’t exchanging painfully boring glances at each other, they interact with a young and vibrant couple who tries to usher in as much fresh air as possible. Celebrating their honeymoon, Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupand) are everything Ness and Roland aren’t: happy.
Seeping with overwrought staleness, the movie temporarily becomes exciting when Nessa discovers a pipe-sized hole in the wall which looks directly into the French couple’s room. From there, Nessa spends her days obsessively watching the couple engage in various sexual activities with deep seeded noisiness and underlying anger. Despite this moment of interest, nothing comes from it. Nothing is learned about this new couple or even why Nessa is spying on them, yet she’s constantly mad about something, directing her unspoken rage at their happiness.
Missing out on a multitude of opportunities to make the narrative stronger, Jolie-Pitt settles for a pretty-looking film minus any heart or feeling. Stale, just like their marriage, the characters never do anything worthy of interest. The plot doesn’t have anything to say, and when the revelation is made at the end of the film, the audience is so physically drained from boredom it’s impossible for it to have an impact.
One of many problems with the movie is its script. Jolie-Pitt’s writing is stagnant and devoid of purposeful dialogue. Trying to be the next Virginia Woofle, Jolie-Pitt fails at one basic storytelling rule: making the audience care. It’s easy to dazzle people with glamourous clothing, great lighting, editorial stylized posing, and longing glances, but why should anyone care about these characters when they have nothing to say or do? It’s definitely not coming from the actions of either Roland getting drunk or Ness’ always exposed bare feet.
When the audience isn’t being bashed over the head with stunted dialogue and pretty clothes, they are assaulted with disconnected and over-the-top acting from Jolie-Pitt (Brad Pitt is regulated to just existing and looking old). During the one and only climatic scene, Nessa has a massive breakdown after doing something rather selfish. While this is a breakthrough in their marriage, Jolie is incapable being honest in the role. She spouts words without any meaning or feeling for the sense of moving the scene along. It’s distracting and silently screams of desperation.
By the Sea puts the “boring” and “pretty” in “pretty boring.” This would have worked better as a silent, visual film. This way, the audience would be safe from the silent screams of their souls slowly dying from the time wasted watching a movie that has nothing to say.