By The Sea begins with a long tracking shot of a beautiful couple, driving a beautiful car, through beautiful scenery, listening to beautiful music. The first images of this seaside Parisian landscape are breathtaking and you feel like you are being giving an exclusive peek into a luxurious lifestyle. But then the music (literally) comes to an abrupt stop and the beauty surrounding this couple starts to give way to their truth – they are bitterly unhappy.
The couple is Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) and her husband Roland (Brad Pitt) who have come to this idyllic hamlet to, as Roland puts it, “get away from it all.” In truth, Roland has come to overcome his writer’s block and Vanessa has come to keep him company, but it quickly becomes clear that she is dealing with some serious demons and issues of her own.
Vanessa is perfectly styled, but she seems hollow, especially against the slightly more charming Roland. At first the two seem to move around one another, but when they check into their room and begin to move the furniture around to set up Roland’s desk to face the sea, you see how they work as a team, knowing each other’s needs without needing to say anything. These moments of unspoken understanding make the bitterness of their interactions feel all the more devastating.
Set in 1970s France, every vice is indulged (excessive drinking, smoking) except for one, which is observed from a distance. The couple staying next door seems to be the polar opposite for Vanessa and Roland – young, in love, and free. It is when this couple – Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) – become involved in Vanessa and Roland’s relationship (whether they realize it or not) that By The Sea seems to find its sea legs. Jolie, who also wrote and directed the film, uses Lea and François to as a mirror to reflect the issues plaguing Vanessa and Roland and help the audience better understand their struggles.
The use of actual mirrors and window reflections are featured throughout the film as a subtle way for each character to see a bit more of one another, and themselves. It works well at first, but starts to become overused as the film goes on. It is clear Jolie is quite adept at depicting the complexities of marriage, but some of her tactics feel too on the nose (a bit with Vanessa’s sunglasses or using all white or all black outfits to depict a character’s mood). It is through the little moments – a pained look or a stolen glance – that make Vanessa and Roland’s relationship one you want to root for, even as they continue to prove themselves to be unlikable people.
Jolie uses the picturesque setting to ironically juxtapose the ugliness Vanessa and Roland are going through. By The Sea almost feel like certain aspects of Jolie and Pitt’s 2005 photo shoot for W Magazine brought to life, but Jolie fills these gorgeous images with pain and confusion. The narrative meanders and, at first, the choice works since Vanessa and Roland are in such a dreamy place, but when every step forward in their relationship turns into ten steps back (thanks to both Vanessa and Roland’s dispositions constantly turning on a dime) the film starts to lose it’s luster and begins to drag instead of capitalizing on any momentum it works to generate.
Jolie and Pitt still shine on screen together, even when depicting a marriage that is falling apart, and their natural chemistry is what keeps By The Sea moving forward. Their scenes together are more about their physical interactions than the words spoken and both actors infuse them with enough emotion to make words unnecessary. A simple request from Roland to dance turns into a chaotic frenzy or Vanessa asking Roland to join her in the shower becomes an intimate moment that reveals her true sadness.
Images mean more than words here and cinematographer Christian Berger makes every frame stunning from a close up on Vanessa’s hair being tossed around as she dances to a long shot of her and Roland embracing in the shower. Berger captures the beautiful setting through natural light and the specific camera placement help fill every scene with beauty.
By The Sea can feel confining thanks to the single location and small supporting cast, but it works to impress the feeling of suffocation both Vanessa and Roland seem to be struggling with. Lea and François have a profound affect on Vanessa and Roland, but the couple ends up feeling underused thanks to the interactions they start to have with Vanessa or Roland on their own.
Lea and François would have been better left as an unknown couple experienced from afar as the scenes with the couple start to slow down the narrative. Even the time Roland spends with the café owner (Niels Arestrup) begins to feel unnecessary as it becomes clear By The Sea is at its best when it is focused squarely on Vanessa and Roland. It would be too much to never have Vanessa and Roland deal with anyone else, but these brief moments getting to know the supporting cast becomes distracting and ends up making these characters feel underused instead of ones you want to remain on the periphery.
By The Sea tackles some heavy topics, but the one theme that permeates the rest is the feeling of loss. Jolie seems to be finding her footing here as a writer and director creating an art house film that feels incredibly personal and looks magnificent, but sometimes the intimate relationship she brings to the material works against the overall narrative. By The Sea is full of long shots that fill the screen and Jolie would have benefited from taking a step back to take in the big picture instead of getting overly entrenched in the minutia that loses its impact when revisited one too many times.
The Upside: Commanding performances from both Jolie and Pitt; beautifully filmed; limited dialogue works to highlight unspoken performances and striking images.
The Downside: Small cast ends up feeling underused; repeating motifs become tired; pacing and slow character development drag down narrative flow.
On the Side: Jolie and Pitt have not starred in a film together since Mr. and Mrs. Smith back in 2005.