Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt materialized like some wedding-cake vision of man-and-wife perfection at Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theater Thursday night to introduce their latest joint effort By the Sea. The erotic thriller kicked of this year’s AFI Fest, arriving as Jolie Pitt’s third directorial outing and the first film to star the Golden Couple™ since 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
By way of introduction, AFI president Bob Gazzale recalled how the actress-writer-director’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, joined the American Film Institute in the ‘70s and habitually called in to update the organization about her daughter’s progression from HBO ingénue to Oscar winner over the years.
Bertrand died of ovarian cancer in 2007 and Jolie Pitt grew visibly emotional from the theater podium recounting how she implicitly inspired By the Sea. “This film is, at the core, about grief,” Jolie Pitt said. “That grief was from the loss of my mother. But in the end, I also think this film is about learning to move past it.”
By the Sea is also, at its core, an art film, albeit one that harnesses the steroidal star power of the A-list husband-and-wife tandem. Set in a tiny, unnamed coastal town in 1970s France, it’s a tone poem of miserable languor. The characters’ fitful inactivity, their lounging around beautiful places doing not very much in exquisite wardrobes, is shot through with longing and ennui. There’s a lot of pill-popping and slap-fighting interrupted by bouts of energetic lovemaking that takes place in bathtubs and beds.
She and Pitt’s character, Roland, are moneyed American expats — a “failed novelist” and a professional dancer who retired when she became “too old” — who roam continental Europe in a luscious Citröen DS convertible with a portable typewriter and a trunk full of Louis Vuitton luggage. Washing up on the shoals of middle age, Roland goes through the motions of writing a novel to salvage his professional standing but mostly just rages against desperation with endless rounds of gin and beer at the local bar. Back in the idyllic seaside hotel room they share, meanwhile, Vanessa recedes into an opaque pharmaceutical haze. She’s impenetrable behind YSL sunglasses, disconsolate when not unconscious.
That’s because the couple shares an unspoken tragedy that lashes them together in passionless matrimony even while threatening to tear them apart at the seams. But their stasis is challenged by two discoveries: a small peephole allowing them to peer unnoticed into the adjoining hotel room and the arrival of hot-to-trot French newlyweds (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) who check in next door.
Although some early reviews have been quick to write off By the Sea’s awards season chances, and the industry macher exiting the Chinese in front of me last night could be heard dismissing the movie as “a long slog,” I feel it succeeds on its own peculiar merits.
Jolie Pitt effectively encases herself and Pitt in amber, forever committing their formidable beauty and undeniable onscreen chemistry to the time capsule of film. And I found it impossible to consider them — even within a conspicuous homage to New Wave Cinema — together without a voyeuristic shudder.
By the Sea’s distributor, Universal, has only begun to sell the movie’s meta-narrative, which arguably comprises its real spectacle: the Jolie-Pitts at each other’s throats. It’s the kind of thing American tabloids are constantly trumpeting in their headlines anyway, even without the necessary basis in truth. All that back-dropped by some of the most gorgeous Mediterranean locations ever captured by a camera? How is that not a fun date night at the movies?
By the Sea hits theaters Nov. 13. Watch the trailer below: