'By The Sea' Review: These Characters Can't Take A Vacation From Their Problems [AFI Fest]

By the Sea is very much an art film. Angelina Jolie Pitt's romance wears its European influences on its sleeve, but some American titles come to mind while watching the writer/director's third film: What About Bob? and the work of Mike Nichols (Carnal KnowledgeCloser). The former title may appear odd, but By the Sea is about characters trying "get away from it all" in paradise. Unlike Bob, these characters can't take a vacation from their problems. Their bags — full of cigarettes, a typewriter, and impeccable clothing — aren't the only baggage these tired lovers bring with them on their getaway.

Roland (Brad Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) aren't half the people they used to be. Roland, a once promising writer, doesn't have any stories left to tell and is an alcoholic. Vanessa, a dancer-turned-wife, is ambivalent, suffering from a past event. The New York couple head to Malta. Roland is looking for a story to tell, but he's really looking for a way to save his marriage. Even when the married couple are in a hotel room together, they might as well be on opposite sides of the planet.

Two French honeymooners, Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and Francois (Melvil Pouopard), make matters worse for the couple, or better, depending on how one interprets the film. Between their two hotel rooms, there's a peephole, which both Roland and, mostly, Vanessa, take advantage of, watching the couple in their most intimate moments.

Roland and his wife see the couple that they used to be in the honeymooners, and this is one of the more deftly handled plot points in By the Sea. Admittedly, the long-winded first act is rough around the edges. Jolie Pitt's script relies heavily on repetition, especially in the first 30 minutes, often hammering in points that the filmmaker's images are already showing the audience. There's a little too much telling instead of showing in the opening of the film, which is odd, considering how elegantly shot By the Sea is. When Jolie Pitt and her DP, Christian Berger (The White Ribbon), communicate more with silence, that's when this romance takes flight. The contrast between the gorgeous locations and the characters' turmoil is striking. It's almost impossible to even enjoy the gorgeous sights. The camerawork and story becomes increasingly claustrophobic, turning this paradise into hell.

Once the film picks begins trusting its audience more, Jolie Pitt's script is as finely tuned as her shot choices. The repetition grows richer, highlighting the roller coaster ride of Roland and Vanessa's relationship. The opening and ending, especially, tie together beautifully. Not only from a character standpoint, but also because of how Jolie Pitt and Berger visually express how the characters have changed. The married couple are in a very different place by the end of the film, and the camerawork shows you that. I won't spoil the arc by explaining the difference in framing, but I will say it illustrates how far the actor has come as a director.

by the sea 3Unbroken is a fine movie. It's well-shot and there are fine performances, but it still feels like Jolie Pitt is testing the waters as a filmmaker. She's making all the right choices, but despite Unbroken's inspiring true story, it lacks focus and, strangely, emotion. There's plenty of emotion on display in By the Sea. This is a warts and all kind of romance, making it all the more romantic.By the Sea is about two assholes. Roland even calls him and his wife assholes, which they very much are. The worse they act, the more human they become. In the first act, Roland is constantly trying to "fix" his wife. When she leaves her sunglasses awkwardly placed on a table, he's there to turn them upright. There are little touches throughout the film to show how they handle each other's flaws, and when they begin to accept each other's problems, By the Sea becomes more compelling and, surprisingly, moving.

Pitt is fantastic as Roland. From frame one, the actor is a convincing sad sack. Sure, the character looks like Brad Pitt and is clearly wealthy, but his desperation and struggle is palpable in every scene. No matter how poorly he acts, you root for the writer to pull through. Jolie Pitt has the more challenging role of the two. Vanessa is cold and distant, and why that is remains a mystery until the third act. At times the character can't even explain her irrational actions. It's an ego-less performance, a deeply unlikable character Jolie Pitt fully embraces. Never does the writer/director attempt to excuse or justify Vanessa or Roland's actions, she just presents them as is.

By the Sea is a handsomely made and confidently acted picture. It'll surely be divisive, and kudos to Pitt Jolie for writing and directing an uncompromising movie. This is by no means a movie for everyone. Although, it must be said, By the Sea is actually pretty funny at times. This could've been nothing but two hours of misery, but there's genuine humor and warmth to the story, all of which is earned. In spite of the first act and some of the more unsubtle and ethereal dialogue, By the Sea is a refreshingly honest, sexy, and clever romance.7.5 out of 10