By the Sea (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Despite the setting of the picture being right by a body of water, its content—until just about the final act of its interminable, miserable two hours—is desert-dry in intrigue, genuine emotions, and sense of urgency. Writer-director Angelina Jolie has failed to demand and earn the viewers’ attention; there are numerous stretches here where it is essentially a waste of film, so monotonous that it becomes maddening. If one were to point to an example of how to make a marriage drama dull, “By the Sea” should instantaneously come to mind.
Part of the problem is the material’s reliance on showing beautiful people looking sad. We feel every inch of forced emotions, from the languid body language to carefully framed close-ups designed to capture a performer’s best angle. It is the antithesis of romance—not in a romantic sense but in the effortlessness of showing a relationship as is, whether it is currently strong, floundering, or somewhere in between. While it does make us wonder why the couple, Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), is experiencing a great turmoil, the answer is revealed too late—when the picture has already exhausted the viewers into not caring.
The supporting characters are more interesting than the main players. Particularly curious is the cafe owner (Niels Arestrup) whose wife has passed away. Arestrup plays Michael in such a natural way that we believe immediately we may come across an old gentleman like him while on a tropical vacation. The way he portrays the character eclipses Pitt’s go-to of preserving masculinity in the face of great inner struggle. Other standouts include Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, a happy couple on their honeymoon who just so happen to be staying in the room right next to the depressed wife and husband whom we are supposed to care about.
It neglects to make the most out of its environment, a small coastal town in France where the beach is within ten feet of the road that houses boutiques, hotels, and convenience stores. When the writer-director is willing to showcase the beauty and elegance of the town, the images come roaring to life; it makes us wish to jump into the screen and lay out under the sun. An argument can be made that keeping us inside the hotel like prisoners is the point: it is a way of suffocating us, making us feel sick of seeing the usual furnitures and hearing the same conversations, urging us to want to scream. We adopt the headspace of the central couple. It does not change the fact that the rewards are few and far between.
“By the Sea” is not meant to be enjoyable—and that is perfectly fine. But the material must tap into the nuances of a crumbling marriage and it is required that emotions behind the performances be throughly convincing, not just another high fashion spread in a magazine. Although supposedly a drama in its core, I found the experience it offers is cheap decoration.