The third feature film to be directed by Angelina Jolie, By the Sea is a competent and beautifully-shot film. Taking over in the writing department as well, the film Roland (Brad Pitt), a writer trying to rekindle the romance between pen and paper while also trying to reach his depressed and unhappy wife, Vanessa (Jolie). Set, quite literally, by the sea, in a picturesque and quiet French town in the mid-’70s, Vanessa, who speaks to her husband in nothing but low and clipped tones, becomes strangely infatuated with the newlyweds next door, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) while fighting issues with herself and with her marriage.
By the Sea examines the marital relationships from different angles. From the couple who has been married 14 years, to the newlyweds who are happy and seem to have their whole life ahead of them, Jolie’s central focus is always on her and PItt’s characters, the happy couple next door only there to serve the lead characters’ story. The cinematography is gorgeous, serene, peaceful and the complete opposite of the tumultuous relationship between Roland and Vanessa. It doesn’t take very long to figure out why Vanessa is so distant and unhappy, even though the reason isn’t revealed until the very end of the film.
The film’s tone remains consistent throughout and there’s a bit of tension building. There are moments where you hope it’ll lead somewhere ultimately significant, but every time the plot takes one step forward, it takes two steps back and leads the characters right back to where they started. The film is a very slow burn, the pacing could have been a lot faster because at a run time of a little over two hours, By the Sea starts feeling a bit monotonous. The third act and conclusion isn’t greatly satisfying and the redundant actions of the characters doesn’t make you very emotionally invested.
Angelina Jolie takes advantage of the beautiful scenery and so a lot of the scenes take place outside and around town, but Jolie falls back to the central location of the couple’s hotel room where all the important events take place. Everyone’s performances are good, but suffice it to say that Laurent and Poupaud don’t have get a whole hell of a lot to do. Niels Arestrup, who plays a local barkeep, is the advice-giving older man who lends a kind ear to Brad Pitt’s woes.
By the Sea is a hard watch in a lot of ways, not because the subject matter is difficult to watch unfold, but because the slow-going plot and sparsely-used dialogue will make you impatiently awaiting the end. There are scenes where the film most definitely shines and you can see Jolie’s true potential in these moments, but they’re lost amidst moody character attitudes and unnecessary repetition. Underwhelming and slow.