Jolie's latest film appears to be harping back to marital dramas the late sixties, with their discontented housewives and distant husbands: think Julie Christie in Terence Davies' Darling. But, instead of subverting the slightly vapid portraits of fashionistas and patriarchal narratives to adapt to the times, By The Sea ends up standing simply as an archaic and inward-looking portrait of ultra-wealthy married life: with Jolie as the beautiful yet frail wife and Pitt the protective, alcoholic husband.
Both put in committed performances, but somehow By The Sea manages to leave the audience feeling utterly cold and disconnected from its narcissistic leads.
Set in the '70s, the period piece explores the troubled relationship of Vanessa (Angelina Jolie) and Roland (Brad Pitt) who have left New York for a remote and glamorous coastal hotel in France. What follows feels much like a vanity project for the real life couple, as we are faced with long shots of Jolie in impossibly beautiful couture, smoking cigarettes and staring tearfully out at the ocean, eyes wide and lips pursed in a sultry pout.
Similarly Pitt's Roland perpetually sits at the local bar, unable to gain inspiration to write his latest novel, drinking a whiskey from a crystal glass and scowling bitterly. Only halfway through the film does something even remotely interesting occur, when the pair discover a shared fetish for peeping through a hole in the wall at the young, newly married couple next door, but even this notion of voyeurism as curious act of reunion the couple together seems somewhat stiff and half-hearted.
Whilst By The Sea is visually authentic and evidently in love with its era – the costumes are rich, Jolie beautiful and doll-like: every shot could be out of a Vogue photo shoot, this is hardly enough to propel the film past the territories of mildly interesting. Constantly struck by it's pretentiousness each time one of the glamorous duo mutters something in French. The script lags, and at times By The Sea actually verges on the downright offensive, indulging in uncomfortable degrees of '70s chauvinism – but apparently without a touch of irony. One of the film's most shocking moments sees their attractive young neighbour Mia (Mélanie Laurent) asking Pitt's character "Do you think I'm naive?" to which Pitt replies, "I think... you're a woman."
It's impossible to sympathise with the unpleasant lead pair, despite the truth behind Vanessa's despair. The reason for her unrelenting grief is suspended until the films final scenes, but this 'big reveal' – easily inferred from the outset – is not enough to salvage this, and there's little justification for the way that the grieving Vanessa ultimately behaves. Similarly we see a little too much of the moustachioed Roland shaking the 'hysterical' Vanessa's shoulders, clutching at her face in fury, or referring to her as a 'good wife'.
By The Sea seems to be is a self-indulgent act of exhibitionism by its real life couple role-playing an alternative reality: a warped, bleak version of their own marriage. No wonder, then, that it was shot on the couple's own honeymoon to Malta last year – it feels like the ultimate pursuit of a kind of smug catharsis for Hollwyood's latter-day golden couple.
We're not holding out for an Oscar.
By the Sea will be released in the UK on December 11.
|What||By the Sea film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
11 Dec 15 – 11 Jan 16, times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here to go the film's IMDB page|