A sad married couple played by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt take an escapist Mediterranean holiday in “By the Sea,” writer-director Jolie Pitt’s elegantly slow-paced marital drama with grief at its heart and a peephole for diversion.
It’s a good thing Jolie and Pitt are so much fun to watch (smoking cigs and speaking French), and their Malta setting so gorgeous (shot by Christian Berger with natural light), because there’s not much going on. It’s the 70s (picked by Jolie for its lack of distractions) and this duo is bored. Roland is a bestselling novelist with writer’s block who shoves a notebook in his pants and drinks with the local pub owner (always charming Niels Arestrup), while Vanessa pops pills and wanders like a depressed Monica Vitti by the rocky sea, wearing flowing white dresses and hiding her crying eyes under drooping hats and jumbo-sized Sophia Loren shades. (Ellen Mirojnick is the costume designer.)
They’re barely communicating, much less having sex, and they become attracted to the young just-marrieds next door (Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) who are lustily making a baby. First Vanessa watches through a peephole, then Roland, who suggests they do it together. They guiltily hang out on the floor on either side of the peephole with clinking wine glasses, allowing themselves to get worked up.
Clearly the couple is childless for a reason, which we eventually discover. It’s appropriate that Gena Rowlands attended the AFI opener, as Jolie is aiming for an intimate Cassavetes-style exploration of emotion. Sometimes she gets there; both actors are fine. Jolie wrote, produced, directed and starred; she might have juiced up the bare-bones screenplay.
Universal Pictures, after a torrid record-breaking year at the box office, seems to be having a hiccup as “Crimson Peak” and “Steve Jobs” underperformed. When Jolie’s third feature opens November 13, while there will be curiosity to see the married stars in their first movie since “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” a decade ago, it’s unlikely to score big numbers.
When Jolie was promoting last year’s World War II saga “Unbroken,” she had just finished shooting “By the Sea” on her honeymoon. She told me that “to go to a very small piece that I wrote about relationships, that’s very experimental and logistically easy, was a very nice change.” While directing herself “wasn’t fun or easy,” directing her husband “was actually more fun,” she said. “Working with him was a real pleasure. He’s a joy to work with.”
Last year late entries “American Sniper” and “Selma” debuted at the AFI FEST and both went on to secure Best Picture Oscar nominations, but in a hyper-competitive year this exercise in Euro nostalgia is unlikely to make a big splash.