BY THE SEA Review: Almost Pervy Enough
Angelina Jolie is a good filmmaker. I can’t say that I’ve liked any of her films so far (or even that they’re particularly good), but they’re all well-made, and Jolie knows how to create a frame and how to work actors within that frame. Visually she has more going on than many mediocre filmmakers whose movies are theoretically better than hers, and I’m left in a weird position where I’d rather see what Jolie is up to (even though I always suspect it’ll be bad) than watch the latest middlebrow film that excites the awards bloggers.
At the AFI premiere of her new film, By the Sea, Jolie said she had not made this as a commercial work, and boy was she not kidding. By the Sea is a slow burn of a movie that never quite takes off, a film whose languid pacing would be acceptable if it all went somewhere. And it definitely has places to go - halfway through By the Sea almost turns into a pervy erotic film - but it opts to continue simmering, never boiling over.
Jolie co-stars with real life husband Brad Pitt as a couple whose relationship has gone dead. It’s the late 60s/early 70s and they travel to a remote spot on the French coast, he hoping to rekindle his writing career and she… well, she’s just there for the ride, and to be grumpy. Pitt’s character drinks too much while Jolie’s character pops pills and sits around the hotel room, and they’re heading towards a huge falling out when another couple moves in next door at the hotel. This younger couple is full of life and sex, and Jolie and Pitt soon realize they can peep on their neighbors through a hole in the wall. Together they spy on the younger couple, watching them fuck and talk, and things begin to change in the older couple’s relationship.
There’s a hot minute where I thought By the Sea was going to turn into a Red Shoe Diaries episode, and I would have welcomed that, but the film backs down and instead finds its climax in a melodramatic (and crummy) reveal about the source of Jolie’s sourness. Jolie herself wrote the script, and it’s as if she decided to pull back at the last second and not take the story in the direction she originally intended. As a result the film is like a cake baked in an oven without walls - it never gets hot enough to really come into its own.
Jolie is as breathtakingly gorgeous as the coastal scenery, and she makes sure the camera gets her from all the right angles. It’s actually slightly distracting how beautiful she is here, with that lush late-60s style truly servicing her knife-edge cheekbones and enormous lips. There’s vanity on display here, a filmmaker very aware that her own face is her greatest tool, which perhaps in this case makes vanity less of a sin and more of a smart move. By the Sea is at its best when Jolie is just being luxuriously difficult, reminding us what iconic screen stars look like.
It’s at its second best when Brad Pitt hangs out with Niels Arestrup, playing the bartender who keeps the blocked writer swimming in gin. The two have a number of nice scenes together - Arestrup is always a delight - but they, like the movie, never go anywhere. Pitt gets loaded and throws a fit and insults everybody in the bar… and then he’s just back the next day. The arclessness of all this stuff almost feels experimental.
Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud play the horny neighbors, and they’re fine, but it seems as if Laurent’s charm has been dialed down. The two float through the movie, smiling and boning, but never add up to much. Jolie becomes jealous of Laurent, thinking Pitt wants to fuck her, and you get it but at the same time you don’t - she just doesn’t have enough of a presence to be a threat.
Seeing Jolie and Pitt act against each other in a psychosexual story like this brings the metatextual frisson hard. It’s what it must have been like to see Burton and Taylor go at it back in the day, except this is the 21st century and so we actually see the couple fuck in a tub. The entire film feels like we’re the ones peeking through the hole in the wall, and it’s easy to imagine that this gorgeous duo actually wake up as well-put together as they do in this movie, that they actually move with this indolent glamour through equally opulent surroundings in their day-to-day. By the Sea is our tabloid fantasy of Brad and Angie come to life, a couple fighting and fucking their days away, glowing like suns at the center of the world, outshining the natural beauty that surrounds them. By the Sea is almost an adaptation of the cover of Star Magazine.
If all of this came together narratively or emotionally, By the Sea would be a great film. Sadly Jolie has no clue what to do with these characters or the themes with which she is playing, and as By the Sea moves into the third act you glumly realize it just ain’t getting any better. But it is gorgeous, and for a time it is engulfing in its beauty. Future film scholars will dote over this film not because of its content but because of what it means, what it shows, what it intimates about these titans. If only it showed that Angelina Jolie, talented filmmaker, knew how to tell a story.