About seven months after Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston got married, The Onion ran the brilliant headline “Brad Pitt Bored With Sight of Jennifer Aniston’s Naked Body.” It was a perfect joke on a couple of levels, but the element of truth that’s always stayed with me was the notion that even the most beautiful, desirable people are still just ....people. We can all fantasize about the perfect lover with the perfect body and the perfect personality, but time has a way of stripping the fantasy out of everything.
I thought about that Onion headline a lot while watching By the Sea—and not just because Pitt happens to be in it. This romantic drama isn’t particularly good but does try to do something interesting by starring one of the most photographed celebrity couples in the world, and putting them in a drama that goes deep on what a minefield marriage can be. (Not to mention that Angelina Jolie wrote and directed the movie and cast her husband to play opposite her.) By the Sea stumbles a lot more than it gleans any insights, but as a meditation on how the grass isn’t always greener, it does have a certain amount of voyeuristic oomph.
By the Sea is set at some undefined point in the 1970s as an American couple, Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), are preparing for a vacation in a seaside French resort. With their chic-cool period clothing, and the gorgeous views all around, these two seem to be walking through a travel-porn fantasy. But it soon becomes clear that this is all an illusion: Roland is a blocked writer, Vanessa is a retired and spiritually adrift dancer, and neither of them are particularly thrilled to be hanging around the other in such a secluded, intimate paradise.
The reasons behind this long-married couple’s fraying inform By the Sea’s central mystery, and writer-director Jolie offers some big clues, which will lead to a pretty predictable revelation. Before that, however, she gets to drape her movie in period vibes, and she’s not shy about her influences. As the press notes advise, “In its style and its treatment of themes of the human experience, By the Sea is reminiscent of European cinema and theater of the ’60s and ’70s—with its concentrated, lean storytelling style, spare dialogue and intimate, often disquieting atmosphere.” Specifically, the film dips its toe into the stylistic waters of Michelangelo Antonioni, oozing a ravishingly blank tone in which its characters’ beautiful features and beautiful locales are a constant contrast to the discontent eating away at them underneath.
A little of this affected aesthetic goes a long way, though: Jolie lets us linger in Roland and Vanessa’s exquisite slow-motion melancholy, but she can’t quite figure out how to translate that gorgeous misery into anything other than designer ennui. By the Sea gets more involving, however, when she introduces a second, younger couple—newlyweds Lea and François, played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud—who are honeymooning next door to Roland and Vanessa’s room and are happily screwing each others’ brains out day and night. Vanessa stumbles upon a discreet peephole between the two rooms, and soon she becomes infatuated with watching—not for titillation, per se, but because she craves the connection that these two seem to have effortlessly.
Such a plot twist could be played for laughs or drama, and By the Sea dabbles a little in both directions, finding the dark humor (or is tragedy?) in an older couple coming back together emotionally because of the younger couple next door. (Soon, Roland becomes Vanessa’s voyeur-in-crime.) It’s a nice little turn of the knife in which Jolie acknowledges that even beautiful people get knocked down by the same mundane problems that affect the rest of us in our relationships. Vanessa begins to wonder if Roland wants to sleep with Lea, while he becomes convinced that Vanessa is coming on to François, and deep down Vanessa and Roland seem to be stung by the fact that, not that long ago, they were this sparkling, happy couple. That wasn’t supposed to change, but it did.
There’s something to the quietly paralyzing anguish of By the Sea, the film essentially arguing that all couples are envying other couples, who are in turn envying others. A vicious cycle! At the film’s premiere, Jolie told the audience that the movie was inspired by the death of her mother, and that the story was her way of discussing loss. No denying the great emptiness at the center of By the Sea, but I wish the movie wasn’t so held down by its European-cinema trappings. The movie seems to want to cut deeper, get kinkier, move beyond the gorgeous mannerisms. But I confess I got bored with the sight of its beautifully naked surface.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.