Right from the appearance of the outdated Universal Studios logo up to its bizarre freeze frame ending, Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea is adamant about looking and feeling like a film that is not of this era. In fact, it moves exactly like an arthouse experiment, the one that auteurs imported from Europe would predictably make when afforded a cast of Hollywood A-listers just to prove that there is a place in Hollywood for intense examinations of luxurious ennui.
Unsurprisingly, By the Sea plods along in an excruciatingly sluggish pace, perhaps in an effort to enunciate the setting’s lackadaisical way of life. However, the film never truly embraces its seaside setting except situate what essentially is a sliver of a story of a married couple, played by Jolie and her equally famous husband, Brad Pitt, who relocate there to resolve their domestic issues in the guise of an extravagant vacation.
Frustratingly, Jolie’s film seems to be built on artifice. It is constructed on emotions that never really resonate because Jolie is bent on ornamenting them with gestures and symbols that only muddle them. It is difficult to see past the characters’ preoccupation with being beautiful, and to dig into their internal troubles, simply because the film is far too concerned in appearances to bolster whatever that is profound that it wants to tackle.
That might exactly be the point. Perhaps Jolie is attempting to emulate Sofia Coppola in her visual studies of the glaring lifestyle of the rich and famous in films like Marie Antoinette (2006), Somewhere (2010) or The Bling Ring (2013). There is enough posturing in By the Sea to drive the point that the characters played by Jolie and Pitt are of a different class from the rest of us, with different needs and expressions of emotional pangs.
However, Jolie, unlike Coppola, is too unsure of what she wants to drive at, to the point that her film feels like it is meandering aimlessly. The story unfolds like an ambiguous but charmless mystery, where clues are carelessly laid out in an attempt to excite regarding the unremarkable cause of the couple’s marital strife. It only reveals a bit of direction when a honeymooning couple (Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent) move in next door, allowing Jolie’s character a bit of intrigue as she watches them have sex through a peephole.
Beautiful but dull
Thankfully, By the Sea is stunningly beautiful. Lensed by Christian Berger, a frequent collaborator of Michael Haneke, the film makes most of the setting’s sun-drenched vistas to convey a certain calmness that drastically contrasts with the shadowy interiors of the hotel. This visual play between light and darkness seems to manifest Jolie’s intent in portraying the very private turmoil that the couple is undergoing amidst all the beauty that surrounds them.
Sadly, the film’s visual design is as inert as all its other cryptic symbolisms. Jolie peppers her film with too many contrived devices to drive a singular and unexceptional point and too little humanity. She ends up with nothing more than a pretty portrait that is only beautiful to look at but far too taxing and arduous to fully grasp and understand.
By the Sea is definitely not entertaining, although the presence of Jolie and Pitt seems to say otherwise. It plays like a puzzle whose rewards are minuscule. Its thoughts on marital relationships aren’t even novel. Its depiction of profound boredom isn’t convincing either. It has all been done before, and with a lot more skill, depth, and perhaps, even sincerity.
By the Sea has all the marks of a film from someone who has an utmost desire to be taken seriously. It screams all of its grand influences, from Hitchcock to Antonioni. Along the way, it lost itself, turning into something that is neither here or there. It is a film that is as confused as its barren characters.
Nevertheless, By the Sea seems to successfully reflect what Jolie is attempting for herself and her career as a filmmaker. True, it is a failure in almost every sense, considering that the film does not do much despite all the talent that is involved in its production. However, this failed attempt echoes an artist who is bent on straying away from what is normally expected of a bankable actress who has decided to exert efforts on becoming a filmmaker. – Rappler.com