Brad and Angelina Jolie Pitt dress beautifully, sigh wistfully, smoke constantly and almost literally bore the pants off each other — and us — in By the Sea, an insufferable vanity project whose only saving grace is its gorgeous setting on France’s Cote d’Azur. Written and directed by Jolie, the movie sells the somewhat novel gimmick of famous spouses playing fictional ones, but even the most celebrity-besotted viewers will find this tedious drama a long slog. Who knew these high-wattage stars could be so dull?
Pitt and Jolie play Roland and Vanessa Bertrand, whose 14-year marriage has hit a rough spot. She’s a once-famous dancer who has hung up her toe shoes; he’s a writer whose Hemingway-esque mustache isn’t helping produce another novel. Upon arriving in a French resort, they establish a routine: Roland gets drunk at the bar while Vanessa lays catatonic in bed. Something in their past has made intimacy impossible.
Enter Francois and Lea, happy young honeymooners in the Edward Albee mold. Played by Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), they’re a pair of nubile bodies whose constant copulating arouses the older couple. Still, Vanessa begins behaving strangely. In a succession of scenes focused largely on Jolie’s heaving chest, Vanessa seems on the verge of bedding either the husband or the wife — or perhaps her motives are even more diabolical.
It’s odd that Jolie, an otherwise strong director (Unbroken) and one of Hollywood’s most accomplished women, would create and cast herself in such a reductive role as Vanessa. She’s a grotesquerie of her gender: vain, duplicitous, emotionally needy, sexually manipulative. Under duress, she mews like a kitten. Jolie seems to regard her as a complicated, Strindbergian character, but that’s an error. Had Vanessa been written by a man, we’d call her a misogynistic cliché.
Set in the 1970s for extra glamour — vintage sports cars, retro leather jackets — By the Sea combines the pretentiousness of European cinema with the superficial glamour of Hollywood, resulting in a lethal cocktail of phony ennui and self-conscious preening. Only Niels Arestrup, as one of those world-weary philosophers frequently found in French villages, provides a glimmer of real humanity. The rest is a pose.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup.
Writer-director: Angelina Jolie Pitt.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.