If you’ve heard any of the story behind Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea, it’s a kind of beautiful story. Jolie wrote the script back in 2007, right after her mother died from cancer, before she herself had undergone a preventative double mastectomy, but when she must have been swimming in thoughts of her potential health and mortality. When she’s talked about making the movie, she reminds me of my young friends from art school: actors venturing into the territory of making their own work, telling their own stories, and feeling downright terrified to do so. She and Brad Pitt, who costars in the movie, filmed the project over their honeymoon in Malta, and when he has spoken about the process, he sounds like a typical newlywed: head-over-heels in love and a guy who couldn’t possibly be prouder of his wife.
That story, unfortunately, is infinitely more interesting than the actual movie it produced.
What came out of that story is Vanessa and Roland, a 1970s couple 14 years into a marriage that has gone way, way cold. They’ve traveled from New York to the French seaside so that he can work (he is a once successful writer who now does little more than get drunk all day in front of a blank notebook) and so they can work through some mostly unnamed personal tragedy. The movie is beautiful and ambitious, and it is boring as all hell. At its best moments, Roland and Vanessa have a twisted, mysterious relationship with the young newlywed couple staying in the hotel room next to theirs. It’s a weird slow burn of a mild Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf vibe, especially after the older couple discover a peep hole connecting the two rooms and end up bonding over the voyeurism of watching the others have sex, using that experience to start the process of reigniting their own long-dead affections.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the movie is not based in story, or even really characters, but rather tone and beautiful shots, and a general wistfulness. Now, obviously we’d all love it if fewer movies followed a predictable by the numbers formula, but there are basic tenants of storytelling that make a thing, you know, interesting. And this movie does not have them. The engaging bits— mostly the stuff with the young couple— come too late, too far between, separated by a lot of Jolie crying, staring, smoking, and Pitt drinking, staring, drinking more.
Something that makes this movie even more frustrating, which is both a weird product of the time we live in and also a very clear indication of the movie’s failings, is how it was marketed. Because the stars involved here are so much bigger than the project itself, the pre-release interviews played a big part in what we knew and how we felt about the movie. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal if the film knew how to tell its own story. Instead, anyone who read an interview with Angelina Jolie in the last few months would certainly use her words to fill in the holes in her own story. Things are about to get a little spoilery, so skip the next paragraph if you want, although honestly I promise not to say anything I wouldn’t have wished I knew going in.
This entire movie is based on some mysterious tragedy that has broken the relationship between Roland and Vanessa. Based on some confusing wording in a recent Wall Street Journal interview (combined with Jolie’s admission that the movie was inspired by his mother’s death), it seemed that the “personal tragedy” they faced was a terminal illness Vanessa is battling. Here’s the minor spoiler: it’s not that. You don’t know what the problem is until the last few minutes, and while it is a serious problem, if you go in expecting death, everything seems frivolous by comparison. Also, if you think Vanessa is dying, you may be much more likely to excuse two-plus hours of what would otherwise come across as a general malaise. If you spend that time being forgiving, though, and then reach the end and realize you were wrong, it’s just going to be that much more frustrating.
This is, unabashedly, proudly a vanity project. Good for Jolie for doing something personally and creatively challenging, for making something that meant so much to her. As she described it, this is “about grief and how different people react to and process it,” which is a subject I think more of us should be open to exploring. It’s admirable. For the people who had an extreme personal stake in this movie, it is a cool little project. But there is absolutely no reason why you, a person with no personal ties to the film, should spend any time and money on it.