When the Burton and Taylor-esque Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Angelina Jolie Pitt) first arrive in their picturesque villa in Southern France, they quickly rearrange the furniture to allow for an unobstructed view of the clear blue waters. It’s meant to be an inspiration to Roland, a writer struggling to come up with something for his next novel. But for all of the beauty that surrounds them both, he mostly ends up drinking away his troubles at the local bar while she pines away like a fractured porcelain princess.
Such is “Beyond the Sea”, Jolie’s gorgeous and dull ode to 1960s romance films of the French New Wave. Jolie’s third effort behind the camera, the first based entirely on her own screenplay, is a beautiful if painfully serious novelty. It could sit on their shelf for them to admire and show off to their guests like some prized artifact, although the only ones who would be remotely interested in it are the Pitts themselves.
Taking a step back from her larger scale projects, Jolie seeks to explore the emotional disconnect between a troubled married couple. Both are posh, impeccably dressed like something out of a fashion magazine for really miserable people. If they weren’t so much fun to look at then the first hour would be unbearable, as Roland and Vanessa do little more than pass by one another on the way to…well, absolutely nowhere. He can be found drowning his sorrows to a chatty bartender (Niels Arestrup), while she stays in the room taking pills and conjuring up maddening scenarios in which Roland wants to screw the hot wife (Melanie Laurent) of the newlywed couple (Melville Poupaud plays her husband) staying in the next room. There’s so much passive aggression going on that we really don’t care what their actual problems are, but something really awful has come between them, apparently. They’ve settled into a routine of mutual avoidance, but thankfully that doesn’t prevent them from looking absolutely phenomenal however their emotional state may be. Vanessa can shed a bucket of tears and still look like an artist’s muse.
Actually, their resilient beauty is another problem “By the Sea” faces. Roland and Vanessa are woefully uninteresting whether together or apart, and for all of their arguments they never seem to come out the worse for wear. The effect is of an overlong and thudding Revlon commercial in which the emotional stakes are nonexistent. A mildly absorbing development arrives when a peephole is discovered in Roland and Vanessa’s room, allowing them to spy on their frisky neighbors. For a time the monotony is broken up as they indulge in this subterfuge, with Roland desperate to find anything that will break Vanessa out of her funk.
But it’s not nearly enough to sustain any momentum; the pace too languid and the characters too empty to encourage any kind of connection. It’s not the fault of the performances as Pitt and Jolie play off one another beautifully. He continues to be the epitome of cool; just watch him driving along the winding, stony roads in his vintage convertible, one hand casually on the wheel, the other clutching a cigarette. Jolie too has glamour dripping from every pore, and it radiates from her even when Vanessa is at her most manic. The problem is the screenplay, which takes a passing glance at themes of sexuality, despair, grief, and voyeurism. It’s also disappointing to see Laurent and Poupaud’s roles reduced to plot constructs rather than actual characters we’d be interested in following.
Sometimes husband and wife vanity projects like this can be successful. More often than not you get a Madonna/Guy Ritchie situation, though. Fortunately, Jolie’s “By the Sea” isn’t quite the stinker of Ritchie’s “Swept Away”. There’s too much technical skill on Jolie’s end, helped by the elegant cinematography by Christian Berger, to write the film off completely. Let’s just say that Jolie has a bright future as a director, and “By the Sea” will probably go down as a curious side bar on her career path.