Angelina Jolie’s third movie as a director, By The Sea, is like a curio cabinet. The cabinet itself is very well crafted and exquisite to look at, and inside are many interesting things. But really, no matter how pretty it is, all you’re doing is pawing through some junk. The film, which is also written by Jolie, is beautiful to look at and it contains some interesting ideas and turns, but the story is so thin it’s almost non-existent. The result is an uneven film that tests viewers’ patience as holes in the narrative are filled with unhappy stares and beauty shots of the Maltese coastline (standing in for the south of France).
Jolie stars as Vanessa and Brad Pitt as her husband, Roland, and they’re on vacation in the south of France, ostensibly for Roland to write. Things are obviously strained between the couple, and Vanessa is especially fragile—Jolie modulates her voice so that she sounds almost like a little girl. It’s the 1970s, and Vanessa and Roland are too old to be of the Me Generation, but they’re too young to really be Baby Boomers. They’re caught between two generations marked by significant social movements, and as a result they seem particularly unmoored and without identity. Jolie can certainly craft characters.
But she struggles with actual story, and Sea’s script is its weakest link. The art direction is evocative of the Burton-Taylor era of cinema, and with their real-life marriage conflated with their on-screen relationship, Jolie teases the connection deliberately, though Vanessa and Roland are not so explosive or mercurial. They’re more just mired in misery, alleviated in spells by bouts of alcoholism and voyeurism. When a young, carefree couple takes up residence in the hotel room next door, Vanessa begins spying on them through a hole in their common wall. Roland soon joins her, because this is the most intimacy Vanessa has offered him in some time. Eventually, they manage to reconnect themselves, but sex is just more fleeting distraction from their central problem.
The voyeuristic turn is unexpected, but it’s one of the only surprises in Sea. Vanessa and Roland are not terribly interesting people underneath their misery, and the young couple, played by Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, are not even real characters, they’re just stand-ins for things Vanessa resents and covets in turn. The most interesting person in the movie is Michel (Niels Arestrup), proprietor of a local bar, but even he is less of a real character and more a collection of reaction shots, watching as Roland drinks his days away. It’s only Arestrup’s natural charisma and general excellence that makes Michel more interesting, as he’s able to infuse a couple scenes with a genuine mournful quality that suits the overall tone of the film better than Vanessa’s fits.
Jolie is still flexing her muscles as a filmmaker, and Sea is incredibly personal yet oddly distant—it’s like she’s more interested in trying things out than actually engaging with an audience. She can put together a movie and she has a good eye as a director, but she’s still working out the actual storytelling part. By The Sea feels more like an experiment to see what she can get away with than actual attempt to tell a story, which makes Sea the world’s most expensive student film.