In thinking about the awfulness that is “By the Sea,” Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt’s vanity project or home movie or call it what you will, remember that Jolie Pitt has directed two previous films, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” an extraordinary debut film which she also wrote, and ‘Unbroken,” a good but not great biopic.
Meanwhile husband Brad has major producing credits through his Plan B Entertainment that include a best picture Oscar no less. So these most certainly are not amateurs. They are not giddy movie stars making a pretentious “art film” as a lark between starring in tentpole productions.
So what explains this self-indulgent, meaningless, crashing bore of a movie? What were they thinking?
I don’t intend to start analyzing the motives of movie stars locked up in bubbles of self-absorption, yes-men and self-delusion. They do what they do and one can only review the efforts, not psychoanalyze them.
According to production notes, Jolie Pitt wrote the screenplay for “By the Sea” prior to her two considerable directorial achievements and clearly the project no longer suits her. As a filmmaker, she has moved beyond such an immature, pedestrian movie.
It’s just a shame someone, her producer-husband for instance, didn’t point this out to her.
Jolie Pitt’s screenplay, perhaps unconsciously, contains faint echoes from other works of fiction. Among these would be “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, in the dynamics between a couple reeling from personal tragedy; Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” with adjoining French hotel terraces where two couples find themselves on a collision course; the whole F. Scott Fitzgerald thing about expat writers and bon vivants rotting away on the French Riviera; and many more movies, plays and novels not worth the time to catalogue.
What is not unconscious is the 1970s European arts-house vibe she has given her psychodrama about an American couple in crisis in the south of France. In the tranquil seaside resort where characters say little, their moody stares and silences meant to convey volumes, “By the Sea” imitates the style and mannerisms of the ennui-inflected European art films of that era.
I’ll say this though, it is a kind of relief to watch a story in which mobile phones and other digital devices cannot intrude. I must also report some viewers enjoy Jolie Pitt’s hats, the other period costumes and gorgeous coastal scenery. So the movie is not completely devoid of merit.
It pretty much ends there though.
An American couple, Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie Pitt), arrive at a picture-postcard French seaside resort circa 1973, their marriage clearly in turmoil. He is an alcoholic writer, the kind that never writes anything, and she is a former dancer, “too old” to continue, she explains later.
They take up a suite in a hotel that is to die for including that terrace balcony overlooking a sleepy sea cove. Next door is a honeymooning French couple, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), to remind them of how they once were as a happily married and sexually engaged couple.
Then the doldrums sets in.
Everyday Roland goes to the café down the hill — overseen by village rustics, proprietor Michel (Niels Arestrup), full of advice and wisdom, and Patrice (Richard Bohringer), who mostly just nods — to drink himself into a stupor.
Everyday Vanessa lounges on the terrace in perfect makeup, reads maybe a page in that book she brought and makes sarcastic remarks to Roland when he returns.
Everyday a fisherman rows out to sea and returns with his meager catch. Everyday Roland opens his notebook, takes out a pen and writes nothing. (For variety’s sake, he sometimes does the same with a red portable typewriter.) Everyday the recently widowed Michel offers advice to Roland, which he ignores.
The only development over the course of the movie is Vanessa’s discovery of a curious peephole in the wall that looks into the suite next door. Soon every day and some nights she spies on Lea and François as they make love. When Roland discovers the peephole, he joins her in this dubious sport. Every day.
Maybe at 85 or 90 minutes the repetition might have given way to some sort of existential melodrama, the kind so much in favor back in 1973. But at over two hours — pass the No Doz.
Character dynamics are tissue thin, most scenes truncated and abrupt and the big reveal toward the end unworthy of the forced drama. Instead of an actual story, a viewer is invited to watch beautiful people looking distraught amid luxury while always perfectly cosmeticized and accessorized, taking endless baths or —through a peephole — having picturesque sex.
This piffle of a movie is so decked out in overdressed characters and well-upholstered angst that you’re more annoyed than with the formulaic mechanics of an idiotic horror movie.
The sets constructed, not in France actually but the town of Mgarr ix-Xini on the Maltese island of Gozo, speak to another time and place. But the drama on display speaks to unbridled egotism and squandered talent.
Opens: November 13, 2015 (Universal Pictures)
Production companies: Jolie Pas, Plan B Entertainment
Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup, Richard Bohringer
Director/screenwriter: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Producers: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt
Executive producers: Michael Vieira, Holly Goline-Sadowski, Chris Brigham
Director of photography: Christian Berger
Production designer: Jon Hutman
Music: Gabriel Yared
Costume designer: Ellen Mirojnik
Editors: Patricia Rommel, Martin Pensa
R rating, 122 minutes