Angelina Jolie Pitt is smoking. It’s a cigarette, dangling from her mouth during By the Sea, her third film as a director. But the butt doesn’t bop with her lips, the way it would in the mouth of a poker player. Instead it’s still: Only the line of smoke trailing off the flaming end is moving. There’s stillness throughout this movie. Our star positions herself with her head cocked, hands clasped together, like the muse for a painter’s Madonna. Or she contorts her body across the ridges of a midcentury couch, filling the frame with her physically manifesting anguish, the way actresses did in Ingmar Bergman movies. She’s the raison d’etre of her own compositions. As though she took an art history course, and found the experience quite fashionable.
If you were inclined to be generous, you could call these self-portraits instead. Either way, the visual style is best described as “multi-million dollar selfie.” But that’s not to say that By the Sea is indulging fetishes. It’s actually on an opposing topic: orgasm anxiety. Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) is a stage star gone to a vacation home, trying to outrun an ambiguously defined trauma—whatever it was, it left her sexuality at subzero. That’s unfortunate for husband Roland (Brad Pitt), an Arthur Miller-adjacent scribe who gets drunk when each new day reveals itself to be another chaste one. Verbal clichés illustrate his plight (“This place is shit anyways!” as he exits a bar, trashed), while formal clichés remove the obfuscation from hers (flash cuts that hint at the trauma, then hard cuts that bring us to the next sober sequence). The dissonance is almost invigorating: the subjects and poses of high art being being filtered through techniques more often used in work-for-hire horror movies.
One visual concept stands out, like Roland’s unused erections. The pair are stationed next to two newlyweds (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) who fuck, on the hour, with the vigor of professional tennis players. This movie is set sometime in the midsection of the last century, so our middle-aged married-folk main characters are without readily accessible pornography. Thus the peephole that lets them see into this younger couple’s room—it’s shaped like a cinema screen; smell the symbolic significance—proves to be a rare turn-on. The screen-within-the-screen and the couple-within-the-couple represent a hall of mirrors that a better filmmaker may have gotten lost in. But our star is content to just stop and stare.
BY THE SEA. RATED R. NOW PLAYING.