Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea begins with an unhappy couple driving along rocky cliffs, bound for an ocean-side hotel in Malta. Trouble brims on every surface in their new, impermanent home. Vanessa (Jolie), veiled by heavy eye makeup and floppy hats, places her sunglasses on tables, their lenses facing down. Time and again, Roland (Brad Pitt) flips them over, onto their temples, but clutters his own desk with ashtrays and glasses of hard liquor. They sit next to a bright red Valentine typewriter, which goes mostly unused. Roland, a once-promising and now failing writer, leaves home early and drinks his days away at the local café. Vanessa, a former dancer, lies in a pill-induced repose, napping and reading magazines. These stars have seen better days, but they can afford to decay in an opulent setting. They arrive with lots of baggage.
The surface of By the Sea, rich with symbolism and dense with 1970s glamour, is at times more interesting than its action. Props and costumes do a lot of the heavy lifting as the film observes Vanessa and Roland, barely engaged by one another, in a series of uneventful days. Vanessa walks to a local grocer, her gait so uncertain the ground seems to be trembling beneath her. Roland, shirt unbuttoned to just below the chest, roves the seaside, soliciting strangers (including a local barkeep, played by Niels Arestrup) about their own marriages, searching for a solution to his. Vanessa, meanwhile, seems content to wilt. Like an Antonioni muse, she drapes herself dramatically over a chair, as if rehearsing the poses she might die in. The question lingering over the film’s first act is whether this marriage has suffered an irreparable rift, or whether it’s deteriorated into a sort of mutually assured devastation.
But Jolie proves to have more on her mind than a mere homage to the boredom and anomie of European modernist masterworks. When a young couple, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), arrive at the hotel, Vanessa is uninterested in socializing with them, but she thrills to the view of their newlywed fuckfests through a peephole in her bedroom. Eventually, in some of the film’s most amusing and indelible images (caught in natural lighting by cinematographer Christian Berger), she invites Roland to watch with her. They see who they were, and who they no longer are.
“Jane B.,” a product of French musical royalty, opens the film. It was written by Serge Gainsbourg and sung by Jane Birkin in 1969, early in the long-running affair that eventually produced the actress and musician Charlotte Gainsbourg. By the Sea rather slyly uses the song (among others by Gainsbourg) to wink at itself as a result of high celebrity, but what’s surprising about the film is how judiciously Jolie employs the iconography of her life and marriage to enhance Vanessa’s fear and isolation.
While broadly afraid of intimacy, Vanessa is particularly terrified of showing her breasts to her husband. Roland is sensitive and empathetic, but mourns the loss of love in their marriage. At one point, he drunkenly paws at Vanessa like a bear. (Pitt, always a dynamically physical actor, gets a lot of mileage out of how often his charisma is flustered, and Jolie sparingly but shrewdly frames him as a potential threat.) Later, attempting to smooth the waters, he takes her out to a fancy dinner. Entering a large, packed restaurant, she quietly protests, “I don’t want to be here.”
As Jolie offers her character a tiny window into her past conjugal bliss, she also gives the audience a curated peephole into the private lives of public faces. This double-vision wends down a few genuinely unsettling avenues, exploring themes of aging, envy, and betrayal. The film’s allusions to Hitchcock come to the fore when Vanessa outfits the newlyweds in clothing she and Roland wore early in their partnership, looking to recreate lost passions. Despite such frissons of psychosexual intrigue, By the Sea ultimately backs away from its exploration of a damaged marriage, unconvincingly reducing the couple’s problems to a single, tragic rupture.
More broadly, the film’s barbed tone lacks any distinct target, dodging any trenchant observations about the uncanny sensation of simultaneously living in intimacy and celebrity. (A shrugged “Everyone has many opinions” is the closest it gets.) Gabriel Yared’s lovely string score is overused, giving a false sense of momentum to scenes signifying emptiness and alienation. The final, sobbing reveal not only psychologizes the film’s examination of marital entropy, but attempts to explain it away. But if By the Sea stumbles when it seeks our sympathy, it thrives when it’s exploiting our fascination with the surface of things, and all that’s unknowable underneath.