As Angelina Jolie (sometimes Angelina Jolie Pitt) continues on her career shift into the writer-director realm, it’s clear that once you have enough money, taking risks is easy. This is probably why so many were left uncomfortable by her second feature in the director’s chair, By the Sea. A very visual-oriented film, dialogue is often sparse and tends to reveal little until the very end. Yet, this is what keeps the viewer holding out, watching the dance between Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie) play out like some sort of psychological thriller.
From the moment they arrive at their secluded hotel by the seaside of the French Riviera, it’s clear that their relationship is strained, to say the least. Forced conversations in which Roland says things like, “Have a good day,” to which Vanessa replies, “I won’t” accentuate an underlying source of stress between them that neither can seem to talk about. To make matters worse in terms of putting things in sharp contrast, a newlywed couple named Léa (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) are staying in the room next to them, constantly flaunting their happiness and the jubilance that comes with the beginning of every marriage. Vanessa’s fascination with them turns further ominous when she discovers a peephole in the wall that allows her to easily see everything Léa and François are doing, which usually means she’s watching them have sex. In the meantime, Roland, a failed writer, does his best to pretend that he’s working on a new story, but generally spends his time at the local bar over-drinking and telling his tales to the bartender, Michel (Niels Arestrup), an older, wiser Frenchman who grows increasingly concerned over the nature of Roland and Vanessa’s marriage.
Set in the 70s, By the Sea offers just the right amount of antiquated views on relationships paired with just the right amount of post-Feminine Mystique progressiveness. For instance, Vanessa’s liberality in calling Roland out on all of his shortcomings is an overt indication of just how much women of the decade were reclaiming their power. Indeed, most of the time Roland seems at the mercy of her unexplained mood swings, like when she tries to accuse him of being interested in Léa, to which he responds, “Honey, why are you doing this? Why are you trying to put that in my head? So you can be the victim? Being the wife of a failed writer is not good enough for pill-popping and self-pity? Now you need a better reason to destroy yourself?”
Their deranged repartee is often one of the most interesting elements of the film, though most critics will argue the only worthwhile aspect is the scenery. But Jolie shows plenty of promise as both a screenwriter and director with this second effort, becoming overtly more comfortable with her own voice in ways that most actors are afraid of (except for Chris Evans with Before We Go). As the tension of Roland and Vanessa’s somewhat forced friendship with Léa and François builds toward something more sinister (specifically, Vanessa seducing François to prove that no couple is capable of being truly content), we get closer to learning the truth behind Vanessa’s rage and sadness.
After Roland picks up the pieces of Léa and François’ near destruction of marital bliss, he tells Vanessa that she couldn’t break them, mainly because Léa is pregnant. This shakes Vanessa to her core, for at last we’ve discovered that she herself is barren, the loss of multiple children haunting her on a constant basis. But, ultimately, she sees that this leaves Roland as the only person she can truly turn to in life–whether she likes it or not. It is in this fashion that By the Sea offers a similar relationship dynamic to the one showcased in Brangelina’s first film together, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (a.k.a the one that ruined Jennifer Aniston’s life), in that, though the two despise one another, their rapport is reinvigorated by the revelation that there is no one else in the world who can understand or empathize with them.
Toward the beginning of By the Sea, Vanessa becomes transfixed by the daily and inane routine of a fisherman who never catches anything. She remarks, “Do you see that fisherman? He goes out every day, comes back every night. Hardly catches any fish. What keeps him from going insane? From being so tired of it all? What is it we don’t know?” At the conclusion, and as part of Roland’s finale to a short story he managed to write, he sagely notes, “I figured out your fisherman. He goes with the tide. You let it pull you out to sea or guide you back in. Sometimes you have to move with it. Sometimes, honey, that’s all we can do.” And that’s all Angelina Jolie has done with the trajectory of the script for By the Sea, which is perhaps why most have begrudged it.