Angelina Jolie’s film school was her being an actress. Her first two narrative movies had big budgets, received wide releases, and were given much critical scrutiny. She’s going through her artistic growth spurts in the public eye. Instead of making student films in private, her films have had budgets in the millions, even if their box office has been less so. Jolie’s third narrative film, By the Sea, is a $10m venture which shows Jolie is still learning the tools of the trade, even as she has a voice that deserves to be heard.
Also written by Jolie, By the Sea focuses on Roland and Vanessa (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), a married couple going on a work vacation at a small seaside resort in Malta. They are trying to deal with a trauma of some sort that is driving a wedge between them, though Vanessa refuses to talk about it. Roland spends his days going down to the local watering hole to get drunk, and Vanessa lounges around with her eyelashes. When Vanessa discovers a glory hole…er…a random-ass pipe in the wall between bedrooms, she starts spying on the young newlyweds, leading to a strange friendship of sorts that could have been Antonioni does Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?
The visuals and production design are on point. Christian Berger, who has worked on several Michael Haneke films including The White Ribbon and The Piano Teacher, perfectly captures that 1970s European arthouse/perfume commercial aesthetic, and production Jon Hutman brings all the grace that he brings to Nancy Meyers’ catalog-porn films. Together, there’s a grace and elegance in the production that isn’t present in the script or editing.
Jolie’s screenplay is woefully maximal. Jolie gets the first line in the film as she steps out of the car pulling up to the seaside resort, stating “I smell fish.” Frequently, the screenplay almost dives into Swept Away on-the-nose embarrassment when it would have been better with a more silent visual confirmation. Jolie wants to make sure we understand exactly what’s been happening by spoon feeding the information through dialogue. Yet, even when she’s silent, she hits us with a sledgehammer. Throughout the film, she hits us with a Brechtian “flashback” of horror to tell us that Vanessa has lived through a trauma (don’t worry, she verbally confirms which trauma it is by the end of the film, saving it as an emotional punch and catharsis for both Vanessa and the audience).
Jolie isn’t confident enough in her filmmaking to make something truly experimental. This is Euro-arthouse lite. She doesn’t allow long enough takes to truly emphasize the separation and loneliness. There’s a generic modernity to the editing that belies her weaknesses as a director. And, yet, Jolie has a distinct point of view hiding underneath all of this. There’s a certain femininity to the filmmaking that is a contrast to the male directors of yore. Even as we watch Jolie publicly struggle with her own skills as a director, it’s nice to see that she does have a voice to contribute. I just hope that she eventually finds her own strength.