Film Review | By the Sea

It may have been the pride and joy of our Film Commission - who attracted Branjelina to our shores of film it - but Angelina Jolie's attempt at a low key couples drama fails to excite anything other than boredom

The Miseries of the Hollywood Power Couple: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt try to make the best of what appears to be a dreadful Gozitan holiday
The Miseries of the Hollywood Power Couple: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt try to make the best of what appears to be a dreadful Gozitan holiday

by Marco Attard

Finally, the blockbuster event we've all been waiting for has hit local cinemas. No, I am obviously not referring to The Force Awakens, the latest instalment in a fairly obscure franchise that should be in screens by the time this review hits print. The film in question is, of course, By the Sea, the Angelina Jolie-directed epic that was oh-so-famously shot in Gozo back in April 2014. Either way, the eternal question - is it worth watching?

First off, a clarification. Despite various authorities' insistence By the Sea is very much not a blockbuster, whichever way one slices the term. In actual fact it is an intimate drama of the kind mainly associated with the European film industry, if one bankrolled by Hollywood's premiere power couple.

Set sometime in the 1970s, it tells the story of Vanessa (Jolie) and her author husband Roland (Pitt) who set out to the French Riviera on a holiday. The couple's relationship is on the rocks and Roland is going through a bad case of writer's block, so the two hope an extended stay in a luxury hotel by the Mediterranean would serve as a tonic for both problems.


Predictably, the plan immediately goes awry. Roland fails to write a single word and instead spends his days getting drunk, while Vanessa sticks to antidepressants and misery. And that's the film's first act in a nutshell, really - two of the most beautiful and successful people on the face on the planet enduring a most miserable Gozitan - sorry, French - holiday.

Things brighten up somewhat in the second act with the introduction of Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud), a freshly married couple on their honeymoon. The two lovebirds are installed in the room next to Vanessa and Roland's, and unwittingly end up as a catalyst for the mending of the older couple's relationship as Vanessa discovers a peephole through which she could spy on their all too energetic lovemaking. 

Soon enough Roland also discovers the peephole, leading to evening sessions of mutual observation leading to the eventual thawing the older couple's all too icy relationship.

The idea of voyeurism as couples’ therapy of sorts is admittedly intriguing, but unfortunately Jolie fails to do anything worthy of note with it. Her direction appears to be far more focused on the protagonists' misery, be it Roland's alcoholism or Vanessa's various states of ennui-ridden repose.

There are some germs of compelling ideas in the characterisation, but very little else - Roland's failure to write lacks in tension, since it involves neither financial (the couple appears to be well off to spend multiple weeks on holiday with zero money problems) nor deadline (why is he even bothering to write in the first place?) issues.

Vanessa is just as potentially interesting, since she revealed to be a dancer who currently does very little moving. But her characterisation amounts to little more than that - and there’s only so many shots of Jolie in impeccable clothing and careful cheekbone-enhancing makeup (never mind Pitt in a half-open shirt, drink in one hand and cigarette in the other) one can take before it all gets intensely tedious.

Proceedings get more interesting with the peeping, with sequences lending the film a sinister, at times even Giallo-esque edge as Vanessa struggles with her sexual desires and what appears to be utter disdain towards her husband. Such elements lead to hopes for the third act taking an unexpected twist, perhaps going full-on Dario Argento and concluding with a crescendo of misogyny and cheerfully grotesque violence.

But, alas, this is not the case. What the viewer instead gets is an explanation to the couple's malaise so trite and simplistic it verges on the offensive, before an inevitable happy ending and a realisation it was all a waste of 122 minutes of the viewers' lives.

One also has to add Mgarr ix-Xini makes a poor double for the French Riviera - even if the Gozitan environs are beautifully shot, with cinematographer Christian Berger perfectly capturing the late spring/early summer atmosphere.

In a way it makes for a great advertisement for the place, even if tourists might end up distressed by the lack of charming French cafe. As for the locals, well, the location's less than a couple of hours away. So don't bother with By the Sea and visit Malta’s sister island instead.