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Review: By the Sea

By the Sea
4 10

PLOT: An American couple, their marriage deteriorating rapidly, relocate to a scenic village in Malta in the hopes of repairing their once-happy existence. 

REVIEW: If it were about seven or eight years ago, the prospect of seeing Angelina Jolie (aka Angelina Jolie Pitt as she's now billed) and Brad Pitt in a movie together - playing a married couple on the brink of divorce, no less - would no doubt be helplessly intrigued. But it's 2015, and the once red hot duo has settled down and become just another Hollywood power couple, still A-list names but no longer figures of limitless fascination on the public's part. So it seems somehow appropriate that BY THE SEA, the first film to bring them together since Mr. AND MRS. SMITH, is not at all exciting or engaging, but a listless, apathetic vanity project that neither provides insight into the real couple's relationship nor presents us with an on-screen couple worth investing our time in.

I won't go quite so far as to say BY THE SEA is a chore to sit through - it's exquisitely shot and its stars do indeed look fantastic - but there were undeniably several junctures in the film where I wondered if the end was in sight or if I was just going to sit in the theater forever, relegated to a purgatory where the only available visual stimulants are Jolie Pitt's watery, zombified eyes and Pitt's rugged mustache.

There is virtually no plot, but let me expose you to the narrative, such as it is. Nessa and Roland are two Americans on holiday in Malta in an unspecified time (but seems like the 70s) after some tragedy has knocked their once comfortable existence for a loop. Nessa was once a dancer but is now a sulking homemaker, while Roland is - we gather - a once-prestigious novelist now suffering from a brutal case of writer's block and a debilitating drinking problem. A luxurious villa and amazing seaside view at their disposal, Nessa and Roland immediately assume positions they'll inhabit for the entirety of the film: She lays around glamorously pouting and shooting him forlorn glances while he hustles off to the nearest cafe to get drunk and stare at his empty notepad. The owner of the establishment is a wise old Frenchman named Michel (Niels Arestrup) who dispenses as much advice as he does alcohol, and it says something about the film that it's most enjoyable when this 66-year-old acting veteran is stealing scenes out from under his handsome, famous co-star.

What tragedy has befallen the duo we can guess almost right off the bat, although it takes the movie two hours to arrive at the revelation. When they're not exchanging somber glares, Nessa and Roland find themselves somewhat distracted by the cute young French couple who move in next door for their honeymoon. Lea (Melanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupand) represent the exact opposite of the stagnant American couple: they're youthfully energetic, boundlessly affectionate, and are in the excited first stages of planning a family. Nessa discovers a hole in the wall that separates their rooms and takes to spying on the newlyweds while they engage in seemingly nonstop sexual revelry. Does anything actually come of this intriguing development? I imagined at least a dozen compelling scenarios where Jolie Pitt could have guided this narrative, and she avoided every one of them, content to keep the movie frozen in a sort of languid, excitement-free state of inertia.

In her third stint as a director Jolie Pitt is clearly reaching for an atmosphere of a bygone era here, an arty European aesthetic that Michelangelo Antonioni would have no doubt appreciated. The problem is, there's no emotional honesty in the film, as each and every shot appears to exist solely to make the couple - Jolie Pitt especially - look as fetching as possible. Even during a melodramatic freakout toward the end of the film, Jolie Pitt doesn't allow us to connect to her character, and we couldn't care less whether she's achieved a breakthrough or not. All we can notice is that she's completely gorgeous to look at, and while the film attempts to grunge up Pitt to telegraph his drunken unhappiness, the actor consistently looks like he's just walked out of a Ralph Lauren ad. No doubt this is part of Jolie Pitt's design - those movies she's inspired by often made sure their actors looked like a million bucks, despite their emotional turmoil - but when there's no dramatic pull for the audience, all we're doing is sitting patiently staring at two pretty actors mope around for 122 sluggish minutes.

BY THE SEA is indeed quite lovely on a purely visual level; cinematographer Christian Berger (a frequent collaborator of Michael Hanake's) has taken advantage of both his lead actors and the incredibly lush Malta backdrop to create an endless series of postcard-perfect shots. Come to think of it, BY THE SEA would be a perfect movie to have play soundlessly in the background of a bar or cafe, where one could drink their problems away while beholding the inflated egos of mega-stars as they playact a dinner theater version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Source: JoBlo.com

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