‘By the Sea” is already on its way to being a cultural punch line: It’s the Brangelina vanity film! It’s “Scenes from a (Celebrity) Marriage”!
And it is a vanity film in the sense that Angelina Jolie wrote and directed the thing and is, with her husband, Brad Pitt, the focus of the entire two-hour running time as well as 90 percent of the available screen space. (it’s the first costarring venture for the two since “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” in 2005.) But in addition to being Queen of the Tabloids, Jolie is a nervy actress and an ambitious filmmaker, and while “By the Sea” can’t really be considered a good movie, parts of it are risky, touching, and genuinely, interestingly strange.
True, other parts are mind-numbing, laughable, and insanely self-indulgent. But our mainstream entertainments tend to be so well-behaved, even when they’re misbehaving, that the occasional lunatic at the corporate picnic is welcome. Especially one that appears to worship at the feet of European art movies circa 1963.
“By the Sea” opens as if Jolie had swallowed Jean-luc Godard’s “Contempt” and spit out the seeds: a silver sports car bulleting along the coastal roads of Malta, a handsome, dissolute American at the wheel, his impossibly chic wife beside him, and a vintage Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg song on the soundtrack. The couple are Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), and things aren’t going well. He’s a famous novelist — or was, before he got blocked — and she used to be a dancer before a Mysterious Tragedy pushed her close to the brink of madness. (It’s mysterious only if you’re unaware of Jolie’s role as the embattled fertility goddess of our modern media circus.)
They hole up in a coastal hotel, where the husband spends days at the bar drinking and not writing and the wife refuses to leave her room. They spar with insults and retreat to separate corners; the kindly old bartender, Michel (Niels Arestrup), is worried. A honeymooning couple, Francois (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Melanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”) moves into the suite next door, and the sound of their lovemaking leaks through the walls. Vanessa eventually discovers a peephole that lets her spy on the couple; Roland eventually joins her. Can voyeurism save this marriage? Can it save this movie?
“By the Sea” was shot (by Christian Berger) in the town of Mgarr ix-Xini on the Maltese island of Gozo; rich Mediterranean light drapes everything like statuary. The most stunning statue of all is Vanessa, who hides her fragility under Audrey Hepburn sun hats and huge Sophia Loren sunglasses — Jolie has never seemed so iconic or so much of a gorgeous caricature. (Pitt, by comparison, plays Roland like a man exhausted from trying to keep up.) The movie consists of one scene after another in which the bored, beautiful couple bickers miserably and nothing else happens, but there’s precedent for that: Roberto Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy” (1954), Stanley Donen’s “Two for the Road” (1967), anything made by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton back when they were the Jolie and Pitt of their day. And Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” obviously.
It’s a pretty safe bet that the filmmaker has seen all those movies and wants to get at what they do — to dig into the weird, unique psychic meat of a relationship as it falls apart. The difference is that she’s not very good at it. Jolie’s dialogue is either banal or portentous, and the listless editing leaves the movie drifting in irons. It’s two hours long and feels like eight weeks.
And yet, and yet. . . “By the Sea” exudes a bizarre conviction that may make you — or maybe it’s just me — prefer it to the star’s earlier, “better” directorial efforts, “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011) and “Unbroken” (2014). Jolie’s curiosity about what happens between two people who know each other too well (i.e., any husband and wife) takes the form of obsessive close-ups that can be mesmerizing, as though she were trying to photograph the molecules of emotions flowing between Roland and Vanessa. At it’s flawed, frustrating best, “By the Sea” enters a place of intimacy and vulnerability that most movies never get near.
It also feels like a personal film in ways both daring and murky. Given Jolie’s public candor about the surgeries she has had to prevent the breast and ovarian cancers that killed her mother, grandmother, and aunt, her decision to give herself nude scenes can be read in multiple ways: as bravery or vanity, strength or denial; as a way to flaunt the best reconstructive surgery money can buy or to demonstrate a woman’s resilience and recovery. Or maybe just to illustrate Vanessa’s psychological nakedness. Your guess is as good as mine.
At other times, Jolie frames the sex games of Francois and Lea through the iris of the peephole, as though they were a movie that Roland and Vanessa were watching. This prompts the perverse thought that “By the Sea” may simply exist as a movie for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to watch. It’s two hours of vacation, voyeurism, and celebrity marriage therapy, and you and I aren’t actually invited.
BY THE SEA
Written and directed by Angelina Jolie. Starring Jolie, Brad Pitt, Melvil Poupaud, Melanie Laurent, Niels Arestrup. At Kendall Square. 122 minutes. R (strong sexuality, nudity, and language)