By The Sea, the new vanity project from celebrity power couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, is full of beautiful people, beautiful scenery, beautiful music, beautiful clothes, beautiful cars, and beautiful hotels full of beautiful furniture on which these beautiful, famous posteriors can rest. But despite being surrounded by deep blue Maltese waters, quaint taverns operated by quainter barkeeps, and perfectly photogenic baguettes dusted with just the right amount of flour, no one in this movie is happy. If they are, just wait.
The ennui of the wealthy has been explored to the point of cliché in European arthouse cinema, the clear entry point for Jolie’s latest directorial effort. In particular, she seems to have been inspired by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, which, in practical terms, means a lot of standing on cliffs and looking out at the sea. That reflects more on Jolie than Antonioni, however, because despite her use of recurring visual themes—He flips over her sunglasses because he loves her! His lighter doesn’t work because the spark is gone from their relationship!—she seems more concerned with looking good than saying anything too deep.
Looking physically good, that is. Her character, a former dancer named Vanessa who’s recovering from some sort of devastating emotional blow for most of the movie’s 122-minute running time, is a narcissist who doesn’t seem to care how her cutting remarks and self-pity hurt her husband, Roland (Pitt). He’s not very nice either, a floundering novelist who, day after day, tries and fails to find inspiration at the bottom of a bottle. He drinks, she mopes, they smoke—the film is set sometime in the mid-20th century, when everyone smoked—they get up the next day and do it all again, never looking each other in the eye.
Things start to liven up when a younger couple, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Poupaud), check in to the room next door. Lea and Francois are on their honeymoon and very much in love; they remind Vanessa of how she and Roland used to act, which drives her crazy. She starts watching the neighbors through a hole in the wall between their rooms, observing their casual intimacy and, soon enough, passionate and frequent lovemaking. One day Roland catches his wife mid-peep, and, after confessing he’s been doing the same thing, they begin spying on the neighbors together, sparking a kinky, voyeuristic game where Vanessa and Roland casually manipulate Lea and Francois to see how that plays out in their bedroom later on.
Jolie and Pitt are both, without a doubt, very good actors, and in the film’s rare moments of vulnerability, their fights and reconciliations contain a seed of devastating emotional truth that speaks to the pair’s talent and real-life bond. But those moments are suffocated under long, dreadfully dull sequences where everyone poses artfully and says very little. And while lack of communication is a real issue faced in many long-term relationships (although Jolie insists the movie isn’t based on her own marriage), it doesn’t make for compelling filmmaking. Especially when the director seems preoccupied with making her eyeliner run just right when she cries.