Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: By the Sea

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Although the results were often mixed on Angelina Jolie's first two films as a director - the mostly good "Unbroken" and the interesting, if not completely successful, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" - I admired that, in her first two times behind the camera, the actress attempted to tackle some fairly weighty and substantial subject matter.

So, it's unfortunate that her third film, "By the Sea," is mostly a bust, albeit a scenic and occasionally visually stunning one. Yes, the film looks great and there's no doubt that the gorgeous coastlines of southern France where the picture is set go a long way. The cinematography by Christian Berger is also fairly impressive and sets a mood for the film with which the screenplay and other elements can't quite keep up.

Set in the 1970s and obviously attempting to emulate the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and other '60s world cinema masters, "By the Sea" follows a fairly predictable trajectory as its two handsome leads - Jolie and husband Brad Pitt - play a miserablist couple making each others' lives a living hell during a trip to the shore, where Roland (Pitt), a writer, attempts to break out of a creative rut and Vanessa (Jolie) aims to find her way out of a more personal one.

A problem that plagues the picture from nearly beginning to end is how muted it comes across. When dialogue is not being muttered, it's being shouted and while I understand that this is all to show how much Roland and Vanessa's marriage has come apart, it leaves little room for subtlety. Pitt and Jolie are both fine actors, but they are given little to do for much of the film, which is surprising considering that Jolie wrote the script, most likely as a vanity star vehicle for she and her husband.

Things liven up a little with the introduction of a young French couple (Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) who are spending their honeymoon next door to the gloomy Americans. Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall and a significant middle portion of the film involves the older couple spying on the younger one, which seems to revive their own flailing relationship - at least, for a while.

While watching the picture, one senses early on that there's more than meets the eye at the heart of Roland and Vanessa's troubles, but when it's finally introduced, it's not quite given the weight it would need to justify Roland's drinking problems and Vanessa's suicidal behavior. And just when it would seem the action might come to a head - it sort of does after Pitt confronts two of the film's characters - the story just ends.

"By the Sea" is not quite as bad as I might be making it sound. As I said, it's often great to look at and the two leads are always fun to watch, even when saddled with mediocre material. But this is a missed opportunity and it's a film that occasionally feels aimless. There's no doubt that Jolie is focusing more on being a director than an actor these days, so I hope her next move behind the camera is a little more successful than this one.

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