Life’s a beach and then you film it

An­gelina Jolie’s pas­sion­ate homage to 1970s art­house is un­de­ni­ably gor­geous, but did it have to be this mis­er­able, asks

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

Brad and An­gelina Jolie Pitt in

BY THE SEA Di­rected by An­gelina Jolie Pitt. Star­ring Brad Pitt, An­gelina Jolie Pitt, Me­lanie Lau­rent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Are­strup, Richard Bohringer. 15A cert, gen release, 122 min By the sea, by the sea, by the beau­ti­ful sea. You and me! You and me! Oh, how happy we’ll be!

Not so much, really. The third film by An­gelina Jolie Pitt (that’s what it says in the cred­its) could hardly be more mis­er­able if it were scored to the sound of weep­ing in­fants. Mr Pitt is mod­er­ately solemn as the Pla­tonic ideal of the drunken blocked nov­el­ist. The di­rec­tor her­self has teetered off Down­beat Prospect into De­spair Gulch and been swept straight over Black­heart Falls. She de­serves a spe­cial Os­car for sus­tained Vam­piric gloom.

To be fair, the role is very much in line with the brief Jolie has set for her­self. By The Sea pays con­spic­u­ous homage to a par­tic­u­lar class of suave art pic­ture that se­dated whole­wheat cine­mas in the post-war years. We think of Roberto Ros­sellini’s Voy­age to Italy. We think of Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni’s “tril­ogy”: L’Avven­tura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse. Beau­ti­ful peo­ple mut­ter enig­mat­i­cally in beau­ti­ful places. They rarely break the duo­logues with any­thing so vul­gar as a smile.

Viewed as a 1970s art­house theme park, By the Sea must be de­clared a suc­cess. The film fol­lows Roland and Vanessa, a glam­orous Amer­i­can couple, as they hol­i­day bel­liger­ently in the south of France dur­ing the Water­gate months. From the be­gin­ning, we are aware that some pre­cise tragedy – rather than generic art­house en­nui – has poi­soned a once-per­fect mar­riage. That mystery is one of just two as­pects that could fairly be de­scribed as plot. The other kicks off when the couple dis­cover a hole that al­lows them to spy on the couple next door. Their voyeurism ini­tially seems to rekin­dle the ro­mance. Later, Vanessa seeks to pun­ish the neigh­bours for their taunt­ing hap­pi­ness.

That makes the pic­ture sound busier than it really is. About 75 per cent of By the Sea’s sprawl­ing two hours seems to be taken up with Brad and An­gelina star­ing an­grily at one an­other in their ho­tel room. It may be a bit bor­ing, but, by golly, it’s gor­geously bor­ing. Chris­tian Berger, best known as Michael Haneke’s cin­e­matog­ra­pher, shoots the villa (ac­tu­ally Mal­tese) in such a de­li­cious ochre that you feel in­clined to lick the screen. The cos­tumes hang on the two ex­quis­ite stars as they would hang on no other mor­tals. If only they had any­thing in­ter­est­ing to tell us.

Ms Jolie’s own script largely com­prises dif­fer­ent ways of say­ing “I’m very cheesed off.” When she does lurch for poetry the re­sults are most of­ten ac­ci­den­tally hi­lar­i­ous. Ar­riv­ing back soaked to the skin, Vanessa ac­tu­ally says: “Now my out­sides match my in­sides.” Does that work as a metaphor? Do de­pressed peo­ple feel sat­u­rated? Even if that is the case, it’s still a clunky nugget of di­a­logue.

Sur­pris­ingly, given the per­son­nel in­volved, we get no sense that this could ever have been a happy mar­riage. No per­sis­tent sparks of young love il­lu­mi­nate the per­vad­ing gloom. When we do even­tu­ally dis­cover “what went wrong” it turns out to be more or less what we’d guessed: a very sad thing, but noth­ing that re­de­fines the story.

Still, By the Sea is not with­out merit. On pa­per it reads like one of those Liz Tay­lor and Richard Bur­ton van­ity projects that still oc­ca­sion­ally spoil bank hol­i­day telly (things like The Sand­piper or Boom!). It can’t be de­nied there is lit­tle chance Univer­sal would have bankrolled the thing if such a fa­mous face were not be­hind the cam­era. But Jolie and her col­lab­o­ra­tors have en­gaged so pas­sion­ately with an im­por­tant cor­ner of cin­ema history that it feels churl­ish to com­plain too vo­cif­er­ously.

If Todd Haynes had made By the Sea we might have been call­ing it an egg-headed mas­ter­piece. Okay, prob­a­bly not.

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