Unveiled at AFI Fest a mere eight days before its limited theatrical opening, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s “By the Sea,” which she wrote, directed and co-stars in, was not well received by critics, with reactions ranging from guardedly admiring to outright hostile. Inspired, Jolie Pitt has said, by the pain of her mother’s death, the movie stars Jolie Pitt and her husband, Brad Pitt, as a married couple grieving glamorously on the Maltese coast in the 1970s. (The precise reason for their sorrow is held back until the end, and seems to have tipped several critics from a mixed reaction to an outright negative one.) While the Pitts’ performances are genuinely liked, the movie itself is characterized as a moody slog, although the arrival of another, more enthusiastically loving, couple played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud does raise the temperature somewhat. The word “vanity” comes up a lot, and though that’s a loaded term with a female director, the reviews do agree that the movie is a beautiful one, with cinematography by “The White Ribbon’s” Christian Berger. Even reviewers who esteem Jolie Pitt’s directorial efforts as a whole concede that “By the Sea” is likely to be a footnote in her career rather than one of the leading entries, and as with last year’s “Unbroken,” the critical apathy is likely to kill whatever awards hopes the film might once have had.
Reviews of “By the Sea”
Justin Chang, Variety
Retreating from wartime horrors (“Unbroken,” “In the Land of Blood and Honey”) to explore the less perilous minefield of a troubled marriage, Angelina Jolie Pitt pulls off a halfway compelling trick with “By the Sea,” an unabashed vanity project that struggles to turn its own beautiful inertia into a virtue. Drenched in so many photogenic shades of cream, tan and khaki that it might as well have been titled “Beige Valentine,” this glossy Euro-modernist-art-film throwback casts the writer-director and her husband, Brad Pitt, as a gorgeously unhappy 1970s American couple seeking to escape their demons during an extended stay on the Maltese coast. Meandering and overlong in ways that will test the patience of even die-hard Brangelina fans, the film ultimately feels too dramatically reductive and obvious to pull off its desired cocktail of Albee and Antonioni, limiting its appeal primarily to those viewers who can get drunk on visual pleasure alone.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
As an old-school, hard-drinking, well-regarded American writer comfortable in Europe, Pitt cuts an outwardly Hemingwayesque figure but without the bluster and braggadocio; with more to work with, the actor could make something of a role like this. But Jolie Pitt is pretty tough to take here. Stripping away all signs of vanity, beginning with the constant heavy makeup, would have been a good start, followed by abandoning the studied posing and posturing, which seem alien to the suffering and grief that have overcome her character. There’s no catharsis at the end from the journey taken, just relief that it’s over.
Alonso Duralde, The Wrap
What’s meant to evoke longing winds up as merely longueur; Jolie Pitt (as she bills herself here) and her husband, Brad Pitt, star as an unhappily married couple who spend so much of the film locked in wordless, passive-aggressive battle that by the time they start talking to each other, it’s too late to care about them. The characters have literally been turned into posers, photogenically suffering in and around a seaside hotel as though they were appearing in the September issue of Vogue for Depressives. If “By the Sea” weren’t so aggressively humorless, it might almost qualify as camp, so unsuccessful is its pursuit of weighty drama. Unintentional laughs are hard to come by here; instead, there are yawns aplenty.
Katie Walsh, The Playlist
A decided left turn from her biopic “Unbroken,” Jolie Pitt’s film is an experiment in deeply personal, highly stylized filmmaking that is only partially successful in its efforts. “By the Sea” will most likely be remembered as a cult curio in Angelina Jolie Pitt’s filmmaking career. It’s an ambitious project that strives for a European New Wave vibe, steeped in musings on trauma, grief, and what makes a marriage. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will love this film — it’s too reserved to inspire fervent emotional connection — but with serious contemplation, it’s entirely respectable in its attempts to grapple with the subject in this manner. Jolie Pitt is playing with a lot of advanced ideas in this film, about female psychological pathology, grief, and repressed sexuality. It’s fascinating to see a film reflect such a feminine experience and inner turmoil in this way, and acknowledge the ways in which voyeurism and mental sensuality connect to the corporeal. The rigidity of form and performance only add to Vanessa’s subjective experience of her numbness and detachment. As Vanessa, Jolie Pitt has the funereal stiffness of an aging flower arrangement. The film unfolds as a slow, moody tone poem, almost elegiac in its mourning for the couple that they once were, represented by the newlyweds next door.
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
For her third feature film as a director, Angelina Jolie Pitt continues to make challenging, commendably ambitious movies that aren’t particularly effective. “By the Sea” incorporates a measured, insular tone to examine the quiet disintegration of a long-term married couple, and while there are some fleeting pleasures in watching an A-list star use her clout to produce what is, essentially, an intimate art-house film for a major studio, it’s a pity that she can’t wring deeper insights or greater drama from the material.
Joseph Braverman, Awards Circuit
By and large, “By the Sea” is a tribute of sorts to masters of cinema (most notably Hitchcock and Fellini), their tricks, aesthetics and narrative gimmicks all woven together as propulsion for Jolie Pitt’s vision. However, Jolie loses herself too much in the process, her protagonist fading into the shadows of her hotel room while Pitt’s Roland becomes too prominent for such a played-out archetype (an Ernest Hemingway-like alcoholic writer attempting to find his inspiration amidst the beautiful European tranquility). “By the Sea” works best when the melodrama reaches critical level and the inner agony of Vanessa is lain bare.
BY THE SEA had me — really had me — for 90 minutes. Then it careened off a cliff late in the 3rd act. Angie improves, but misses again.
— Josh Lincoln Dickey (@JLDlite) November 6, 2015
“By The Sea’ isn’t at all half bad. Quiet, intimate, slowish, “La Notte”-esque and yet disciplined. And it pivots, builds, goes somewhere.
— Hollywood Elsewhere (@wellshwood) November 6, 2015
Angelina Jolie directs like a Hitchcock heroine in bed as we imagine Hitch imagined them. Elegant, formal, chilly, but down to fuck.
— David Poland (@DavidPoland) November 6, 2015
Dear lord, BY THE SEA is dreadful.
— Inkoo Kang (@thinkovision) November 6, 2015
BY THE SEA makes me want all the booze, all the smokes and all the pills.
— Ryan Lattanzio (@ryanlattanzio) November 6, 2015
By The Sea: Endless 1960s cocktails onscreen, woefully none in my hand in the audience #afifest
— jen yamato (@jenyamato) November 6, 2015