Review: Beige Movie By the Sea Fails to Go Far Enough to Excite

2 1/2 out of 5 stars.
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When I saw the trailers for Angelina Jolie’s latest venture behind the camera, it seemed laughably bad. A music video with long looks and exaggerated outbursts was not a good way to sell this “relationship drama” about a marriage on the rocks (literally, figuratively, geographically, and every other sense), and I was somewhat pleasantly surprised that the movie itself is considerably better than the trailer made it look. It isn’t two hours of shouting and screaming and watching an abusive relationship play out. There are moments when the film is at its kinky best—when the movie seems to be interested in saying something deeper, smarter, and darker—but then it stops, goes backwards, and ultimately falls flat, and leaving the theater, I realized something: this movie would have been a lot better if it weren’t so concerned with being beautiful or important.

This is a movie that’s clearly made to feel like some of the European art house films from Europe, which would finally land in American theaters a year or two after their release. Personally, I thought By the Sea seemed like something clearly aspiring to be in the vein of the ’60s movies from Fellini or Jules Dassin, or the slightly later relationship dramas of Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, The Sheltering Sky). None of these are filmmakers I consider flawless masters, but those types of films go for broke in terms of being big, messy, melodramatic expressions of their personal ideas. For reasons that probably mostly have to do with the opening driving sequences through the mountains, the movie first reminded me of the very weird (often ridiculous) melodrama Phaedra (a mod-’60s retelling of a Greek myth). I don’t even think that’s a great movie … but it sure holds my interest and feels like a full cinematic experience. The same is true of Bertolucci’s big, sexually charged Last Tango in Paris—a movie I actually kind of hate. But of all the movies I watched in college, that was the one that caused the biggest and most intensely heated classroom debate. Two hours later, we were all still mad and yelling over that one.

No one will be debating By the Sea, because it ultimately does and says so little about the subjects it wallows over. We’ve seen the fragmented couple on the virge of separating many times before, and our two main characters in this film are pretty dull. Even if the idea of watching a real-life couple on-screen was interesting, Pitt and Jolie are suffering from a clear case of Eyes Wide Shut syndrome. On-screen, they aren’t sexy, and it feels so performative that we see nothing that would suggest an insight into a real-life marriage, so why cast her husband? In a film like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the simultaneous love and hate between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton not only felt real but uncomfortably revealing to witness. Jolie and Pitt lack any of the chemistry we first saw between them in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Also, and I never knew this before, but Brad Pitt is terrible at playing drunk. Truly, one of the worst I’ve ever seen, and he’s asked to play drunk a lot in this film. As a long-married couple, writer Roland and dancer Vanessa go to the south of France for what seems to be months. Roland has gone to write, Vanessa to get over a trauma they tease for 2 hours and reveal in the last 10 minutes (yes, this movie is well over 2 hours). Vanessa seems to have one book and a couple of magazines, but usually just sleeps or lounges all day. We’re given no insight into the finances of this marriage. There’s a vague reveal that we are in the mid-’60s, with Mélanie Laurent (the shining star in this movie) constantly in the sexiest fashions of the day (so long as they require her to show as much leg as possible). She’s also on a month-long holiday, a honeymoon with Francois (Melvin Poupaud). Poupaud is fine as an object of interest, but Laurent does the most with the little she’s given, along with Niels Arestrup, always a welcome presence in any movie he shows up in.

The reveal about the tragedy of Jolie and Pitt’s marriage is teased for so long and presented in such a ridiculous, poorly-written climax that people in my theater laughed, not at the real implications in question—many, many people have suffered similar losses—but because of the way it is presented as some shocking twist, which not only made it laughable but almost insulting to those people dealing with the real-life version of the same events. Withholding this as a “reveal” was a huge mistake.

By the Sea is most interesting when it embraces the idea that marriages and relationships need a sexual component as much as they need anything else…and sometimes that means doing things you wouldn’t expect. Midway through, they start sharing in some voyeuristic tendencies, which infuses a bit of energy and wit in their relationship. Playing with that, talking about why couples role play and watch porn and experiment, would have been an interesting approach, especially if they had used Laurent and Poupaud’s characters better. We already had the disappointment of 50 Shades of Grey this year, but we also had the much better, less judgmental Duke of Burgundy and 5 to 7, two of the best relationship dramas in years. Why not make a genuinely sexy, risky, non-judgmental movie about sexuality in marriage? Because that isn’t necessarily pretty, and this movie wants more than anything to be pretty and palatable to the general public. Just like the bland hue of beige the movie is bathed in, it’s easy to live with but doesn’t catch your attention the way the bright, vivid colors available to Jolie could have, had she used them more than she does here.

I saw this movie with a friend who made an excellent point as soon as we left: Angelina Jolie could be a great director-for-hire. She clearly has trouble writing dialogue; that’s when the film gets the most accidental laughs, and all her movies are too long and too self-important. But she has an eye and clearly knows how to direct actors when it isn’t herself or her husband. Give her a good script that fits her style, and we might get something interesting from her in the future. But considering By the Sea, Unbroken, and In the Land of Blood and Honey, she hasn’t found her strength as a filmmaker to date.

(image via Universal Studios)

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