Angelina Jolie’s contemplative drama By the Sea is, if nothing else, surprisingly self-aware. Though for all of the things it does right, it is not an incredible film. The story is a unique spin on a familiar premise, but there are flashes of unrefined filmmaking that take away from the overall experience. Nonetheless, it is conceptually a very daring and intriguing narrative that bares little resemblance to her prior work; it is a cynical film, to be sure, but that is part of its strange and melancholic charm.
The film begins with an American couple driving to a seaside hotel in 1970’s France. They are Vanessa (Angelina Jolie), a former dancer and Roland, a successful author undergoing a bout of writer’s block. The two hardly speak with one another, and the trip is something of a last ditch effort to save the marriage. Vanessa grieves for something unknown in her past, and Roland struggles with alcoholism and laments the fact that she no longer shows interest in him sexually. During their stay, Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall that allows her to watch the couple in the next room. Though she initially tries to hide her voyeuristic habit from Roland, he eventually joins her, and the two watch the young couple have sex and enjoy their honeymoon. However, when Vanessa and Roland attempt to befriend the couple, it forces Vanessa’s true motives to the surface, putting even greater strain on their marriage.
There are few things more depressing than a bitter, seemingly irreconcilable marriage. It is what most people secretly fear about the institution: the threat of paralysis in the face of mutual resentment, being unable to free oneself from someone who is both loved and hated. This is the atmosphere that Jolie creates with her characters, unable to move past their grief, unable to find any passion left within themselves. They drift about aimlessly, ready to burst with cynicism, regret, boredom, and unrelenting sadness. While it is certainly an interesting study on relationships, there is a far more effective element at play, and that is the self-reflexivity of cinematic voyeurism.
The cinema itself is a technology of the voyeur; we all take pleasure in silently watching as events unfold. Love is born or lost, wars are fought, teenagers are murdered or governments toppled, and we sit in a dark room, silently observing and reflecting on what we see. By the Sea takes this a step further, or rather several steps further, and turns our attention back to the act of sitting and watching, as we take pleasure in the misery (whether real or manufactured) of others.
This is first accomplished in a very obvious way, as both Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were (at the time of the film) a married couple in the public spotlight. Their relationship has received an unprecedented level of media attention over the years, so watching a film where they play a married couple is already commenting on the way in which we see them outside of the film; they act, while we observe and silently judge. In the film, we watch Vanessa and Roland, and we continue to observe and judge their idiosyncrasies, only to watch as they begin to observe and judge another couple, projecting their own insecurities and bitterness onto the newlyweds. It suddenly becomes voyeuristic and uncomfortable, turning the attention to our own culpability, as we observe a fictionalized version of a couple that has been relentlessly hounded by paparazzi and left without privacy from any and all public scrutiny. We see what it would be like if the objects of our fascination suddenly turned and looked at us, passing judgement on our daily routines, our victories, our failures, and so on. Vanessa and Roland are the celebrity couple, and the newlyweds are all of us.
This fascinating approach to a story of rocky relationships and grief does not fully makeup for the film’s shortcomings. While the scenery is beautiful, and the character’s compelling, sometimes the combined presence of both Jolie and Pitt can be a little taxing. They fit somewhat awkwardly into the 70’s European aesthetic, and there are moments when it is unclear if their bizarre behavior is a reflection of strange characters, or merely subpar acting. Brad Pitt, for all his accomplishments, has a knack for over-playing his characters, possibly to avoid being labeled as ‘boring.’ On the other hand, Jolie underplays her characters, as if she is afraid of relying too much on her own performative abilities. Whatever the reasons may be, the two are a bit cumbersome in such a self-indulgent script, though the quality of the story works to overcome it. The film will surely entice those who appreciate its self-reflexive qualities, but might disappoint audiences looking for more.
By the Sea is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.
Rating: ★★★½ out of 5