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
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.