By the Sea Review


Angelina Jolie’s third film as director has already faced a critical mauling but isn’t anywhere near as bad as we’ve been led to believe. The story focussing on a fractured marriage sees Jolie – now listed as Jolie Pitt – star opposite her real-life husband and deals with a relationship in crisis where guilt and blame are rife but impossible to place.

Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) drive into a picturesque retreat in the South of France. The setting is the 1970’s, although with great skill and some welcome subtlety the director manages to give the story a timeless feel. Much time is spent gazing at the lead actors and if nothing else you will find it hard to resist the clothes, cars and glamorous cool of the setting.

As Roland struggles to find the inspiration to write his next novel, Vanessa remains distant. The couple clearly love one another, but there is something pulling them apart. She appears to be depressed (or depressive), and her reluctance to face the outside world sees her locking herself into the room they are renting in a hotel. Out of the blue, and due to her own insecurities, Vanessa accuses Roland of cheating. We can assume that she has made this accusation before judging by his reaction and it adds to the forces pulling the couple apart. Newlyweds Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil PouPaud) are the cause of the latest friction and things get even more complicated when Vanessa befriends the younger woman who has moved in next door.

Roland struggles to work, drinking and smoking his way through the day and coming home to a wife who is usually asleep thanks to the pills she is taking. Eventually the American couple begin spying on their neighbours through a hole in the wall, and begin to develop an unhealthy obsession with the drama happening away from their own lives.

The dramatic revelation about what is haunting Vanessa and Roland is not the grand moment you anticipate. Traumatic it may have been, but it is something that isn’t uncommon. The film therefore lacks the payoff that relationship dramas on screen tend to rely on, but the result is something that feels more genuine than most other genre films. This relationship could be any contemporary one. Roland sends Vanessa virtual affection by saying he is “blowing her a kiss” much like one would type ‘x’ in a text message. As the couple spy on the amorous neighbours, they could easily be watching something risqué online to fill a void in their own sex lives.

There are scenes that are painfully played out too, such as when Roland waits for his wife to come home fearing she has harmed herself. Its in moments like this, when the situation is stripped to its most basic components, that we feel most involved. The spark between the screen couple ebbs and flows in a naturalistic manner, and resonates long after the end credits. The performances take a while to get used to however. As a Hollywood power-couple, it is hard to place the leads in the context of this scenario. The lack of back story works in some quarters, but not in others. We need to know more about who they are as individuals not just as halves of this whole. We are expected to see the characters as Brad and Ang in terms of the lifestyle they are leaving behind.

Brad Pitt can coast through some of the dialogue too, and the lines he delivers can feel stilted. Roland is meant to be the erudite life of the party, but perhaps this is a reflection on the collective years of dealing with his troubled wife. He has no fight left, even though it is something Vanessa desires to see in him. Meanwhile the supporting cast are underused and merely set dressing. This is more than likely by intention, as you rarely want to be away from the main story for too long.

It is high melodrama, and as such it has problems, but By The Sea is also a challenging take on the inevitable highs and lows of every relationship.