I will forever associate this movie with my vaccine convalescence, that brief period after your booster shot when it feels like you’re coming down with the flu. Yesterday morning, I got my second Moderna vaccine and I felt fine until around dinnertime. Then I got hit by a wave of fatigue that reminded me of the first trimester of pregnancy. I knew I had to get in a supine position immediately so I retired to my bed with the ipad. I was too tired to even read. I chose By the Sea mainly because I knew my husband had no interest in ever watching it. It got fairly withering reviews when it came out in 2015, and I had pretty much written it off, too, until a couple of weeks ago, when some scenes from it were included in the first episode of the Criterion Channel’s miniseries Women Make Film. I was dazzled by the location and the glamour in those images. I wanted to see more. How bad could it possibly be with Jolie and Pitt starring?
Well, it’s pretty bad. And yet, it’s an interesting failure. I watched the entire movie even as I started coming down with fever and chills and had every reason to turn it off. I can’t say it was boring, because I often found it hard to take look away from the screen, but the pacing was really slow. The dialogue also left a lot to be desired. Filmed during Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s real-life honeymoon, the movie is a period piece, set in the early 1970s, about a married couple in distress. Jolie plays Vanessa, an ex-dancer, while Pitt is Roland, a novelist with writer’s block. They have traveled to a remote location in the South of France so that Roland can write a new book. You have to love the way Hollywood portrays novelists. Somehow this guy has enough income from writing books that he can stay in a luxury hotel for months on end, but at the same time, he seems to have no work ethic and is never seen reading books — which, in my experience, is the primary occupation of writers, especially when they’re lacking inspiration. Instead, Roland drinks his days away in the local cafe while Vanessa stays in her room reading, smoking, drinking white wine, and wearing a series of gorgeous nightgowns. I’m making fun but I’m actually totally fine with the trope of the alcoholic, dissolute writer and the beautiful, sad woman. I love to watch well-dressed people in bored luxury — truly, I do. The Crown is one of my favorite TV shows. But this movie took it to an extreme.
Something has come between Vanessa and Roland, and I guessed pretty quickly what it was, but the movie doesn’t reveal it until the end. The plot doesn’t really get going until about twenty minutes in, when a young newlywed couple arrives, taking the room next to Vanessa and Roland. Their high spirits and honeymooning enthusiasm are in sharp contrast to Vanessa and Roland’s chilly unhappiness. Things get interesting when Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall between their adjoining rooms. She begins to spy on them. This is the moment where the movie starts to feel perverse in a kind of stylized, Hitchcock way. Through the peephole, we get a glimpse of the newlywed couple and it’s like a movie within a movie. By The Sea could have been something special if this plot element had arrived sooner and had been pushed a little further. I won’t spoil what happens but the story definitely livens up in the second act. Then it fizzles out again. Sometimes it felt like Jolie really didn’t know what she had on her hands. Scenes with sexual and emotional stakes were drained of tension by generic dialogue and poor editing choices. There were a lot of scenes that felt like filler, existing to establish a mood of malaise and glamour, but with the gorgeous out-of-the-way location and stars, setting a languorous mood was not hard.
I don’t know why I found myself rooting for this movie, and wishing it was better, but I kept holding out hope that it would magically improve. It may be that the costumes and set were just so beautiful that I was willing to linger in this world, no matter what. I haven’t traveled in years — a combination of quarantine and having young children — and I am dying to get away. I took a lot of vicarious pleasure in watching Vanessa and Roland arrive at their hotel, driving on a road so close to the ocean that when the tide is high, the waves lap onto the street. (Their car is a silver convertible, I think a jaguar; it’s perfect.) Although the characters refer to the South of France and often speak in French to the locals, the actual filming location is Gozo, Malta — and yes, I looked it up and researched hotel options after the movie was over. The costumes were also something special. They aren’t overly specific to any time period, but sort of have a late 1960s vibe to them with a subtle color palette to match the moods of the characters. The fabrics are very beautiful, especially Pitt’s menswear. In an interview for The Cut, costume designer Ellen Mirojnick said that she thought of Vanessa as someone who “self-medicates with luxury” and chooses items of clothing for their soothing qualities. Now that I think about it, I may have been self-medicating with this film, in need of something gorgeously distracting to get me through my vaccine aches and pains.