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Banal By the Sea is Beautiful but Boring

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • 2015 19 Nov
Banal <i>By the Sea</i> is Beautiful but Boring

DVD Release Date: July 5, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: November 20, 2015 (limited)
Rating: R (for strong sexuality, nudity and language)
Genre: Drama/Arthouse
Run Time: 132 min.
Director: Angelina Jolie Pitt
Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupard, Niels Arestup, Richard Bohringer

The last time Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie played a married couple who loathed the very sight of each other was 10 years ago in Mr. & Mrs. Smith. While not exactly Oscar bait, it was pretty fun watching Pitt and Jolie play the seemingly normal suburban couple with a real whopper of a secret: they were cold-blooded assassins recently tasked to eliminate each other.

Now a decade removed from playing Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the real life Mr. & Mrs. Pitt's latest collaboration By the Sea finds them channeling their inner Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald as Roland and Vanessa. Roland is a struggling writer who prefers gin to crafting prose, and Vanessa is a former dancer teetering on the brink of a total emotional breakdown. Aside from those basic facts, the viewer isn't privy to the details of the couple's marital strife or professional challenges, but we learn that in a last-ditch effort to save their crumbling marriage, and for Roland to find the inspiration to write his novel already, the wealthy New York couple heads to the South of France for a vacation.

While that sounds like an intriguing-enough premise, particularly for a film in the Arthouse vein, in the hands of writer, director and lead actress Angelina Jolie Pitt (as she’s billed here), it's a sumptuously-lit slog of a movie where the most exciting event is seeing which exquisite silk nightgown Vanessa will select to mope around in.

Without any real sense of what's bothering her, we see Vanessa, all perfectly made up, false lashes and all, contemplate the emptiness of existence from her bed, the chaise lounge three steps away or while practicing her chiropractor-approved posture in a wingback chair. If she gets really crazy, Vanessa may take a shower, ask Roland to pick up milk from the local market or stare aimlessly at the crystalline water from the deck.

SEE ALSO: Jolie is Scary Good in Maleficent

Meanwhile, Roland, takes a small notebook and pen to the local bar and never actually writes anything down. Usually drunk or getting close by 9:00 a.m., he's presumably trying to find an excuse to get away from his perpetually agitated wife. As with Vanessa, Roland's life is a pretty boring series of events played in a loop, and the lucky audience gets to see each and every non-event play out in slow-motion.

It isn't until Vanessa and Roland find a peephole in their room, a small window into the lives of the newlywed couple next door, that they begin speaking in actual sentences to each other. Their favorite activity is watching Francois (French actor Melvil Poupaud) and Lea (Melanie Laurent, Now You See Me) have sex, but rather than putting them in an equally amorous mood, it's an opportunity for Vanessa to accuse Roland of wanting to be with Lea. To say Vanessa and Roland's relationship is a little twisted is only skimming the surface, and by the time you learn why Vanessa is so distraught in the first place, you've likely already lost interest.

Jolie Pitt clearly isn't suffering from a lack of ambition. Witness her previous forays into directing with In the Land of Blood and Honey and last year's disappointing big-screen adaptation of Unbroken. She's always attempting the big, important film, the lofty type that scores “Best Picture” nods and wild critical acclaim.

The problem with her storytelling, however, is a simple one. She routinely chooses style, the pretty panoramic shots and breathtaking close-ups, over substance. There's no shortage of beautiful scenery in By the Sea or the aforementioned titles, but there's a gaping hole where character development, plotting and emotional stakes are concerned. A feast for the eyes without a discernable heartbeat is really nothing more than stock photography, and in the case of By the Sea, it's a waste of another precious commodity: your time.

SEE ALSO: Unbroken Adaptation Works but Waters Down Redemption

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Roland is rarely shown without a drink in hand and is intoxicated in several scenes. Vanessa is a bit of a pill popper and is shown doing so on several occasions.
  • Language/Profanity: The f-word in its many forms, the occasional use of sh--, dam-. God’s name is misused.
  • Sex/Nudity: As is the case with many European movies, nudity is far more prevalent here. Jolie is shown topless in several scenes and there's a quick glimpse of her fully naked in a bathtub. Roland and Vanessa regularly watch their hotel "neighbors" have sex through a peephole. The couple is shown in a variety of different positions with fairly graphic depictions of sexual intercourse. There's upper female nudity as well as rear male nudity. References to a woman's barren state.
  • Violence/Thematic Elements: Roland and Vanessa both admit to being very "angry"; in a particularly tense moment, Roland tells Vanessa to "hit him." He slaps himself around but she refuses to engage in violent behavior.

Publication date: November 19, 2015

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