Somewhere between Girl, Interrupted, and “Girl, I’m gonna have to interrupt you because you’re going on and on and not saying shit,” is By the Sea. In it, Angelina Jolie plays a disturbed woman named Vanessa who can barely muster more than a sentence at time as she vacations in costal France with her novelist husband, Roland (Brad Pitt). Jolie wrote, directed, and produced this portrait of a relationship on the brink of collapse. From anyone else, it would be mystifying as to how something so dull and inept got made by a major studio. From an A-lister, it makes sense. Superstar entitlement—that which comes from within and without—is the only logical explanation for this horrendous movie.
There is art and there is wasting people’s time. At 132 minutes, By the Sea achieves the latter way too frequently. The source of Vanessa’s despair (SPOILER!) is eventually revealed (like two hours in) to be her infertility, which makes her pregnant pauses unintentionally ironic. By the Sea contains enough pregnant pauses to fill a cockroach’s belly. Consider this scene:
Vanessa unpacks groceries with her back to Roland. Over her shoulder, she notices him looking at her and asks, “Why are you looking at me like that?” He takes two beats. “Just looking,” he says finally. She continues to unpack groceries for another 10 to 15 seconds. End scene.
Or this one:
He leaves the room, closing the door behind him. There’s a beat. She whimpers. She takes several more beats. She slumps down on the bed. She whimpers again.
She whimpers and sighs a lot. She whimpers and sighs so much that when this film is released digitally, I will most likely make a cut of all of her wordless but not silent acting and post it on this site. It will make for a good highlight reel.
That’s not to say that the dialogue isn’t sometimes unintentionally hilarious. “I smell fish,” are the first words to come out of Vanessa’s pillow lips, as she and Roland arrive at their seaside vacation destination. She follows this up by asking, “What’s that sound?” “That’s the sea,” says Roland. At this point, I wondered if Vanessa were aware of the very concept of oceans. But soon enough she gets there, as she lounges around her bungalow popping pills and reading novels while wearing gigantic designer sunglasses, dressed like Caitlyn Jenner. Along the way, we learn through consistently declarative dialogue that Vanessa doesn’t sleep peacefully, she doesn’t know how to play cards (no games at all, I guess), and that she’s “not so easy to love,” per her husband (just in case you might be tempted). After a walk in the rain, she returns to her temporary residence and tells Roland, “Now my outsides match my insides.” So...damp, then? Slick to the touch? Why is Angelina Jolie doing this to us?
We also learn, per virtually everyone around Vanessa, that she is beautiful. A trip to a nearby market in the first act seems to have made the final cut only to show that Vanessa’s great beauty attracts humans of all ages—a small child behind the counter beams lovingly at the woman, who’s entirely blasé about virtually everything she encounters. She’s not mean, but dismissive in a vaguely polite way. She encounters her next-door-neighbor François (Melvil Poupaud) on her balcony while he’s on his. “We just got married,” he tells her. “That’s nice. Mmmm,” she says in response. It seems like she couldn’t care less, but then you realize how little you care from the audience, and haha, you’re at least winning at something. Sometimes it’s the little things that get you through the seconds that are crawling by as you get closer and closer to death.
Even when Vanessa is made to admit that her career as a dancer dried up because she “got old,” François is right there to reaffirm her existence: “Very beautiful.” Though Jolie claims she didn’t write the role with herself in mind, what we see remains a clear manifestation of at least one aspect of her life. A beautiful woman wrote a beautiful character. I see no inherent problem in a woman who is widely considered to be among the most beautiful in the world examining her existence from that angle. Given how often she must be reminded of her immense beauty and how it has shaped her journey through life, she at the very least has a unique relationship to the world if not insight on human beauty. Yet none of that insight is on display here. She’s just pretty and glamorous and sad, like a caricature of a Lana del Rey caricature of Hollywood iconography.
François and his new wife Lea (Mélanie Laurent) provide contrast to Roland and Vanessa’s ruins—François and Lea are newly married, seemingly in love, and actually fuck. Vanessa soon discovers a hole in the wall that separates their rooms and begins to watch François and Lea, absorbed by the existence of humans that are slightly less boring than she and her husband. The hole is apparently magical, too, as François and Lea are utterly oblivious to it. They don’t seem affected by the beam of light that must shine out when when their light turns off and Vanessa and Roland’s stays on. Even when Roland describes what he sees through the hole loud enough so that Vanessa can hear him from the bathroom, François and Lea seem incapable of hearing them despite the opposite proving true: Vanessa and Roland can hear their conversations perfectly. It’s a one-way hole, a symbol of the charmed point of view that superstar egocentrism breeds. By the Sea is idiotic.
“I’m counting on the audience to know that if it was close to us at all, we could never make this film,” is what Jolie recently told the Today show about starring in a movie with her husband playing her husband. “It’s because we’re actually very, very stable and these aren’t our issues.” Indeed, Jolie and Pitt have six children, three she made with her own womb. By the Sea is a movie about how being barren and childless makes a woman empty. The lives of Vanessa and Roland have nothing to do with Jolie and Pitt (even after Jolie had her ovaries removed), because theirs are so much better. We know this going in because they are celebrities, and By the Sea provides nothing but a redundant, miserable reminder.
[Image via Universal Pictures]