Set in the Cote d' Azur in 1973, "By The Sea" immediately brings to mind the wonderful French films of the '60s and '70s, which was exactly writer/director Angelina Jolie Pitt's intention. She and her husband, Brad Pitt, star as Vanessa and Roland Bertrand, New Yorkers who are seeking asylum in the gloriously quiet and seductive south of France.
The opening sequence of "By The Sea" showcases this incredibly handsome couple driving to their seaside destination in a fabulous vintage convertible. Vanessa sports an animal-print sunhat tied under her chin, and rather large Yves St. Laurent sunglasses, while Roland cruises along with a jaunty fedora resting upon his pate --- shades of Francoise Dorléac and Jean Paul Belmondo, two gorgeous French cinematic stars of the '60s.
Roland has chosen this particular secluded spot to overcome his semi-permanent writer's block. Vanessa is harboring a deep secret, and spends her days self-medicating and lounging on the terrace.
The room next door is occupied by young newlyweds, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud). Vanessa, in a state of sheer boredom, has taken to watching these two make love through a hole in the wall hidden behind a side table. When Roland discovers her new pastime, it becomes a nightly ritual, as he and Vanessa eat dinner and drink wine while sharing their new vacation as voyeurs.
Jolie Pitt's desire to delve into grief and love was the inspiration for "By The Sea". She did not aspire to produce a commercial film, but rather an experiment in something different --- more challenging. It certainly has the look and feel of earlier European movies, with limited dialogue, slow pacing and director of photography Christian Berger's C-system of lighting, which creates an overall elegance by protecting the beauty of natural light.
"By The Sea" is not without its problems. I was not enamored with the scene in which the truth of Vanessa's strange behavior is finally revealed. But, for me, this is a minor offense.
The small cast is quite marvelous, especially three-time César winner Niels Arestrup, who plays Michel, the owner of the lovely hotel cafe where Roland spends most of his days trying to write, and drinking too much. Michel is the calm in the storm for Roland, with Arestrup giving a touching and nuanced performance.
"By The Sea", by Jolie Pitt's own admission, is not a film for the masses. But any opportunity to watch Angelina and Brad in a film together is a plus for me. They are as exquisitely beautiful as the town of Mgarr ix-Xini on the island of Gozo in Malta, which substitutes for the South of France.
Opinion: See It Now! (if you are a fan of French films)
Based on their global celebrity status and considerable Hollywood glamour, I'm willing to give some slack to Angelina Jolie Pitt and husband Brad Pitt when they star in a film with virtually nothing happening, at least for the first hour. Written and directed by Angelina, "By The Sea" follows a married American couple from New York on "vacation" in the south of France in 1973.
Roland (Pitt) is a frustrated writer who drinks and smokes heavily. His wife Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) is a beautiful former dancer, although we're not exactly sure what kind. She is also completely morose, keeps to herself, and her obvious unhappiness is exacerbated by the fact she never smiles.
Every morning Roland leaves for the cafe run by Michel (the great French actor Niels Arestrup). He has writer's block, and by the time he returns to their room, Vanessa is in bed, reading or drinking wine, only occasionally leaving the room during the day to shop for food.
They do nothing together, barely talking. This goes on for days, and it isn't hard to speculate what is ailing their marriage. When newlyweds check into the room next to theirs, Vanessa discovers a peephole in the wall and covertly watches them having frequent sex. Roland and Vanessa befriend Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), and Roland joins his wife in their secretive behavior, hoping it will re-ignite her interest in their own sex life.
After an hour of this ho-hum affair, the only thing needing re-igniting was my interest in the film. I found it intriguing, up to a point. But as the story lingered on, my patience wore thin. Jeanne will say it's a French film, trying to convince me that "By The Sea" is of the ilk of classic French cinema like "A Man and a Woman". Eh, "pas tellement" --- not so much.
"By The Sea" represents a major departure for the Pitts. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" this clearly is not. In fact, it was written by Angelina years ago, when she had no inkling it would become a movie, much less starring the famous couple. Were it not for their reputations and star power, you have to wonder if Universal Studios would have green lighted it to lesser talents. If ever a movie appeared as a self-indulgent venture by filmmakers --- Terence Malick comes to mind --- "By The Sea" would qualify.
Aesthetically, Jolie Pitt is a vision of loveliness, with fabulous fashions to match. The film does feature a nice soundtrack, music by Oscar winner Gabriel Yared ("The English Patient"), and excellent cinematography with by Oscar nominee Christian Berger. But with its deliberate pace and a running time of two hours, moviegoers have a right to expect more of a payoff, and when it does come, it's neither surprising nor satisfying.
When Roland tells Vanessa he's had enough of the game they are playing, he may be speaking for more than a few audience members.
Opinion: Wait for DVD