By the Sea

December 10, 2015
Angelina Jolie Pitt in 'By the Sea' (2015)
Angelina Jolie Pitt in 'By the Sea' (2015)

By the Sea has received such terrible notices I went along with diminished expectations – which was probably the ideal frame of mind in which to view Angelina Jolie Pitt’s third outing as a director. Think: “I know this is going to be bad,” and for a long time you can fool yourself that it might actually be good.

It worked for the first hour, but as the minutes ticked by, and virtually nothing happened apart from several dozen close-ups of Angelina’s big eyes and puffy, pouting lips, it got progressively harder to look for positives. The camera loves some stars, while others have an inordinate love for the camera.

The story is set in the early 1970s. Vanessa and Roland (Angelina and Brad), are wealthy, New York A-listers, who have come for an extended stay at an elegant old hotel in the south of France. As there are probably no hotels in France as isolated as this one, the filming was actually done in Malta.

Roland is a writer, suffering from writer’s block, who has the one reliable attribute of all great American authors: dipsomania. He spends his days getting drunk at the local bar, having desultory conversations (in French) with the barman, Michel (Niels Arestrup). Vanessa, a former dancer, sits in the hotel room, moping, weeping, caressing the pages of Vogue. They have been married for 14 years, but appear to despise each other. There is a deep, dark secret that makes life unbearable, but like a duo in a Beckett play they carry on with the same meaningless routines. They are deeply, existentially unhappy, but still manage to look fabulous.

Yes, we’ve been here before, in the arthouse movies of the 1960s, by the likes of Godard, Antonioni and Resnais. Even the background music is all Serge Gainsbourg, Chantal Goya and Django Reinhardt. It seems that Jolie Pitt wants us to see her as more than a popular Hollywood actress. She is – pause, sharp intake of breath – an artist!

Life gets a little more interesting for the world-weary couple when French newlyweds, Lea and Francois, (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) move into the room next door. Vanessa discovers a peep hole, and spends hours watching her neighbours making love. When Roland finds the peep hole, he has a look as well. Soon they are perving together, eating dinner while sitting on the floor. It seems to bring them closer, which is almost comical.

The bad vibes that Vanessa and Roland exude soon begin to infect their relations with the French couple. Does Roland want to sleep with Lea? Does Vanessa want to sleep with Francois? Both parties are jealous and accusatory, but after two hours of ennui it’s hard to care. As for the deep, dark secret, it turns out to be so ordinary that one feels cheated.

Beneath the arthouse affectations there is a big piece of autobiography in this film, although ‘self-indulgence’ might be a more accurate term. Roland’s surname is “Bertrand”, the same as Jolie Pitt’s mother, which must be meaningful in some mysterious way.

Much of the pre-publicity centred on the fact that Jolie Pitt, who had a double mastectomy in 2013, is willing to expose her reconstructed breasts in the bathtub. Although this provides some momentary respite from the sluggishness of the plot, it also adds to the narcissistic overtones.

Not only has Jolie Pitt had both breasts removed, she has also had ovaries and Fallopian tubes taken out, which means no more children. She already has three biological kids and three adopted ones, which would probably be enough to fulfil most people’s parental urges, but By the Sea is in many ways a lament for the director’s lost fertility.

Unlike the barren hoi polloi, Jolie Pitt has been able to compensate with cosmetic procedures and high-end fashion, let alone her very own movie. Her face, constantly seen in close-up, is a series of propositions about what is supposed to be beautiful. She reminds me of Orlan, the French performance artist, who has had operations to give herself the forehead of the Mona Lisa and the chin of Botticelli’s Venus. Jolie Pitt’s beauty has the same unnatural, academic feeling.

Somewhere in this meandering tale there is a reflection on the paradox of celebrity. It seems that even when suffering an existential crisis you must look as if you’ve just stepped from the pages of a fashion magazine. Jolie Pitt would like us to feel her pain but it’s more likely that viewers will be left wondering where she and Brad do their shopping.

By the Sea
Written & directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt
Starring Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup
USA/France, rated MA 15+, 122 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12th December, 2015.