It’s easy to slam a vanity project because it is usually an indulgence that seems to be merited more by celebrity than by talent. And even though these movies are usually terrible, they can at least provide some insight into what makes the creator tick.
“By the Sea” is the very definition of a vanity project; written, directed and starring Angelina Jolie (using her full, married name Angelina Jolie Pitt in the credits for the first time) alongside her husband Brad Pitt (the two appearing onscreen together for the first time since their romance began a decade ago in “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”).
Jolie has proven herself to be a competent, if understated, director with “In the Land of Blood and Honey” and “Unbroken,” although you could argue her career has been much more fascinating off the screen than on.
She has taken her white-hot tabloid focus and used it to draw attention to various causes, from international refugees to breast cancer (her recent double mastectomy made headlines around the world).
Jolie has spent the past two decades in the crippling fishbowl of modern celebrities and you can see those pressures all over “By the Sea.”
The first thing we should get out of the way is this is not a very good movie. It is overlong, dull as dirt and the characters are neither likable nor relatable.
The story centers on Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie), a married couple under emotional duress who come to an idyllic seaside community on the French coastline in the mid-1970s. Roland is a writer who enjoyed success early in his career and Vanessa is a retired dancer.
A cloud hangs over their marriage as the two rarely spend their days together as Roland goes off drinking while engaging in conversation with a wise, old innkeeper (Niels Arestrup) and Vanessa rarely leaves her room while self-medicating with pills.
The tension is ratcheted up when a newlywed couple (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) check in next door and flaunt their happiness in the face of our sour, starring couple.
It’s clear Vanessa has endured some sort of trauma, which is kept secret until the end of the movie, although with all the craziness and drama (!) she exhibits, anything short of being buried alive under a mountain of scorpions fails to justify her behavior.
With themes of isolation, voyeurism, loss, objectification, and longing for normalcy pumping through the veins of this movie like steroids, you don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see Jolie is working some things out from her own extraordinary life.
The movie’s location, setting, and meandering plot betray Jolie’s affection for European relationship dramas of the ’60s and ’70s, although those directors brought an edginess and vitality to their filmmaking that Jolie lacks and the result is a whole lot of boredom.
As a director, Jolie does get some credit for realizing there is always aesthetic value in the framing of beautiful people and locations, as “By the Sea” has that in spades.
I can’t completely hate on this movie in spite of the fact it bored me to the point of near unconsciousness because, in a landscape of compromises and focus groups, there is something to be said for seeing a singular artistic vision come to fruition on the screen, even if it only came about because the creator in question can bring the world to its knees with a single baby bump.
“By the Sea” is rated R for strong sexuality, nudity, and language.