Even the star wattage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie isn’t sufficient to save “By the Sea,” a pretentious but vapid tale of marital distress that comes off as a pure vanity effort modeled, absurdly enough, on Antonioni’s famous films of nihilistic alienation. It’s Brangelina mimicking Michelangelo, and the results are pretty deadly. The title might recall the vintage song from the 1914 musical “Me and My Gal,” but the refrain “Oh, how happy we’ll be!” hardly pertains in this case—for the characters or the audience.
Set in the 1970s on the gorgeous French Mediterranean coast, the story—or more properly situation—finds Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie) driving along a cliff-side road to a restaurant-cum-bar run by a patient, generous widower named Michel (Niels Arestrup). They decide to stay in a nearby hotel, where Vanessa spends most of her time lounging about emotionless in designer outfits, only occasionally going for walks, and Roland most of his in Michel’s bar, trying to overcome a monumental case of writer’s block—an affliction one comes to wish Jolie, who receives script credit, had suffered. The couple is obviously disconnected and morose, and though Roland tries to rouse his wife, a former dancer, back to life, it’s clear she’s endured some traumatic experience that’s left her emotionally desiccated. (A few kaleidoscopic flashback montages make the same point, obscurely.) Though the reason for her sorry state is withheld until the last act, one would have to be fairly dense not to guess it well before then.
There’s a plot turn when a young honeymooning couple, Francois (Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Melanie Laurent) move into the suite adjacent to Roland and Vanessa’s in the hotel. There happens to be, inexplicably, a small hole in the wall that allows the older couple to peer into the other’s rooms and see what they’re up to. One expects—or perhaps vainly hopes—that this voyeuristic twist will lead somewhere, and eventually it does, though it turns out—given its connection to the utterly predictable revelation at the close—not anyplace very interesting. At the close the couple simply goes off again to nowhere in particular, with Roland having finished a manuscript titled “By the Sea”—which, if it’s the screenplay of this film, wasn’t worth all the Mediterranean melodramatics.
It must be said that the film looks lovely, with the magnificent locale captured in gorgeous widescreen images by Christian Berger, and Gabriel Yared’s yearning score has its moments. But apart from Arestrup’s alternately genial and pensive restaurateur, the cast fares poorly against the backgrounds. Of the stars, Pitt certainly comes off better, exhibiting a glum intensity even if the character of an alcoholic writer is a walking cliché. (He even speaks passable French.) By contrast Jolie just offers a series of poses, letting her pursed lips do most of the acting. (She does look wonderful in Ellen Mirojnick’s costumes, though.) Laurent and Poupaud are okay but little more.
It might have been more interesting if Jolie had toyed humorously with the conventions of a film like “L’Avventura” rather than simply trying to copy them. But instead “By the Sea” just plods along on a succession of attractive images that have very little content behind them. What we’re left with is a movie about a couple of beautiful, bored people. Its viewers may not be nearly as beautiful, but they’ll certainly be equally bored.