Howdowe picture the private lives of Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt? If they were to, say, wind along theMediterranean coast in a topdown convertible with Serge Gainsbourg lilting on the radio, would that do the trick?
In the opening of By the Sea, written and directed by Jolie Pitt, they are the picture of glamour we would expect from the stars, playing a married couple who breeze into a remote seaside cove in the South of France. The spell, however, is broken when they reach the water.
“I smell fish,” says Jolie Pitt’s Vanessa, stepping out of the car.
The 1970s seaside setting could hardly be more enchanting, but something is rotten on the French Rivera. Married 14 years and childless, Vanessa, a former dancer, and Roland, a struggling writer, arrive — not with the jaunty lightness of the opening— but as if seeking a shore on which to hurl their on-therocks marriage.
After checking into their hotel suite, they immediately, wordlessly begin rearranging the furniture and placing the desk by the window. They’re like actors setting a scene; the feeling of artifice never leaves By the Sea, which transpires almost entirely within the suite’s walls in a stylish, detached kind of melodramatic malaise.
They quickly settle into a strange routine: Roland spends his days drinking with the local bartender (the excellent Niels Arestrup) and failing to write, while Vanessa mopes around the hotel room. They speak little, in fraught exchanges that refer only vaguely to the prior trauma that hangs over them.
They are in, as Roland says, a “second-stage life”, long past the fresh excitement of their early years together and no longer the celebrated talents they once were. Lacking sure footing, they look enviously around them— particularly at the honeymooning couple (Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) next door.
The two couples timidly befriend each other.
Vanessa’s interest, though, is piqued through a hole in the wall that lets her spy into their room. She’s