Jolie's "By The Sea" Is Almost Worthy

“By The Sea” is better than you’ve heard – if you’ve heard of it at all. The $10 million erotic drama written and directed by its star Angelina Jolie (and co-starring her husband Brad Pitt) has received astonishingly little fanfare for a movie headlined by two genuine superstars. Submerged by a studio (Universal) with little faith in it and pushed to the bottom by a disastrous premiere at AFI Fest, the picture was written off as a failure before it sold a single ticket.

The result: it hasn’t sold much more than a single ticket.

When the film is reconsidered decades from now, contemporary criticism won’t be incomprehensible. “By The Sea” is a deliberate attempt to fly in the face of what moviegoers have come to expect from star vehicles and – more interestingly – an examination of 21st century tabloid culture that slyly turns a mirror on its audience.

If it’s not the all-encompassing study of celebrity that it could have been, it’s a weird, austere, picturesque, wannabe art film that ticks most of the boxes it’s trying to tick and manages not to bore for most of its running time. If nothing else, it’s better than Jolie’s 2014 effort “Unbroken.”

The bitter, broken married couple at the center of the 70s-set film – housewife Vanessa (Jolie) and struggling writer Roland (Pitt) – find themselves on holiday in France, living vicariously through the young newlyweds in the room next door (Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud). But Nessa and Roland aren’t exactly inspired by the couple’s youthful, romantic naivety; they just like to watch them screw through a hole in the wall. Apart at first, then together, trays of food sprawled out in front of them, a makeshift, bacchanalian spectator sport.

The screenplay’s depiction of a marriage gone dim is absurdly broad, marked by frequently languid exchanges between leads (“What?”… “Nothing.”) and boring pub talk between Roland and a local barkeep (Niels Arestrip). But Jolie’s aim as a filmmaker is true. Her themes of love and its fleeting nature are strong, relatable connective tissue made stronger by some wonderful cinematography and directorial choices (for a movie where nothing much happens, it’s edited for maximum attention-holding).

Moreover, Jolie the actress is often able to communicate feeling without dialogue, an underrated skill, especially for someone whose weakness is writing dialogue.

The movie does hit quicksand at the 90-minute mark. Having said all it has to say, it stubbornly sticks around for a further half hour, blunting some of its impact. But its place as an anti-“Before Sunrise,” a bizarro Richard Linklater joint, makes the movie intriguing and evocative enough to be worthwhile for both fans of the leads and pop culture rubberneckers – the same crowd the film is demonizing.

More curio than manifesto, “By The Sea” still deserves more of an audience than it’s gotten to date, one that it should find over the years thanks to its attention-grabbing pedigree and crisp visuals. Anyone leveling accusations of incompetence or self-indulgence against Jolie should reconsider. She’s a capable, astute artist. That “By The Sea” is her first credit as “Angelina Jolie Pitt” is no accident at all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 13, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Screenwriter: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Starring: Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexuality, nudity, and language)