By the Sea
By the Sea wants to be an Italian art film from the ‘60s & 70s. The By the Sea has the gumption to be the film it wants to be. The ennui of a bored married couple is put on display during a working vacation to the coast of Malta.
There are two Academy Award winners at the heart of this quiet introspective film from a large movie studio that’s in the middle of its biggest year ever. (Universal has distributed three films that have made over a billion dollars worldwide this year: Jurassic World, Minions, and Furious 7.) Don’t expect to see By the Sea playing for months like Universal’s aforementioned hits.
Angelina Jolie writes and directs what has to be one of the most moody and atmospheric films to come down the pike in a long time. There’s some personal laundry on display between the stars Jolie and her real life husband Brad Pitt playing the glamorous movie couple.
The Oscar winners are of course Jolie who nabbed the Best Supporting Actress award for Girl, Interrupted (2000) and also has an honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from 2024. Pitt won an Oscar as producer on Seven Years A Slave also in 2024. By the Sea’s cinematographer Christian Berger shoots all of Michael Haneke’s films. Berger was nommed for an Oscar in 2024 for The White Ribbon, and also has his own-patented method of lighting. The whole production radiates with this low contrast pastel look in both the interiors and exteriors.
Roland and Vanessa (Jolie and Pitt) arrive at a luxury seaside luxury hotel and rapidly go their separate paths. Roland gets drunk during the day at the local bar while Vanessa fights off boredom with prescription medicine, literature and the occasional walk. The purpose of the trip is for breadwinner Roland, an established artist, to finish his new novel. Early on, Vanessa finds a hole in the wall that allows her to spy on the couple staying in the room next door. This is basically the entire movie.
There are those who will take joy in the opportunity to dwell in the realm of a slightly disturbed married couple. And when you find out the cause of their fracture it makes sense and you feel empathy for them. Perhaps you even decide that you strangely identify with them. Vanessa for her nihilistic view of life, and Roland for his gallant attempt to pen a novel while staying drunk all the time.
Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), Niels Arestrup (War Horse, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Richard Bohringer co-star; the latter a mainstay in French cinema imports in the ‘80s. Arestrup plays the bar owner and has several interactions with Roland that define the lingering spine of the film. Eventually both Roland and Vanessa are sharing glasses and spying through the hole at their younger counterparts. There’s even the hint that the older couple is changing roles with the younger couple.
By the Sea will play best to a sophisticated cinema audience and will become a cult item down the line. The average moviegoer will have no iota that a brilliant film has come and gone.
— Michael Bergeron