By the Sea is a film that should not exist. Had it been completed and then subsequently destroyed, without anyone ever having seen it, it might have become one of the most dramatic and fascinating legends in film history. Picture the scene: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the most famous and beautiful couple in the world making a film in a French seaside town. The film is made, but then, unexpectedly, the two file for divorce. Jolie, the director of the movie, decides to destroy the film. People begin to speculate. They find out that Pitt and Jolie played a 1970s married couple, embittered and resentful, on a half-hearted semi-holiday in France – he, a once promising author, she, a once promising ballerina. A trailer drops. It’s wonderful. The cinematography is smooth, sunny and otherworldly. The art direction is glamorous and simply irresistible. Pitt and Jolie epitomize anatomical perfection: people swear to have never seen them look as beautiful, intense, melancholic and real. The absence of the actual feature forces to dream about the film that could have been, the latest in a line of cinema’s great lost masterpieces. Authors write books about it. Filmmakers make movies about it. And although Pitt and Jolie, now no longer married, are often asked about this movie, they never talk about it. They smile politely and move on. They understand the interest – but some things are better left unsaid.
However, By the Sea is a real movie. In fact, as soon as its first images play out on the screen, the film has already amounted to a huge disappointment. As it progresses, it reveals itself as a dull and lazy marital drama which darkens as it progresses, to the point of occasionally resembling a Giallo, but still remains constantly predictable and downright unbearable. Considering that Jolie had shown ambition and talent in her previous two feature directorial efforts – dealing with such delicate subjects as the Bosnian War and Japanese POW camps of World War II – makes By the Sea seem all the more hideous.
Sympathetic reviews have called this an exercise as far too personal for a spectator to truly understand. This is a truth that is only there for those who want to see it. In any case, it is a truth that can only occasionally be seen on the faces of its leading actors, and it is a truth that is constantly repressed in favour of an insufferable narrative arch completely devoid of originality. As it stands, By the Sea feels like nothing more than a two-hour-long fashion house advert, or something made with the maturity of a teenager who has just discovered the European arthouse cinema of the 1970’s and read such melancholic works as Bonjour Tristesse.
In retrospect, Jolie and Pitt may have tried to channel some of their internal struggles creatively. However, filmmakers have been making much more interesting “personal” films since the very beginning. Alas, By the Sea leaves us with nothing but a sense of mourning for a lost masterpiece that was never lost. – ★
BY THE SEA || 2015, USA || Drama || Directed by – Angelina Jolie / Produced by – Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt / Written by – Angelina Jolie / Music by – Gabriel Yared / Cinematography – Christian Berger / Edited by – Michael Pensa, Patricia Rommel / Starring – Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie / Running time: 122 mins.