Back in 1999, moviegoers were given the opportunity to voyeuristically gawk at an impossibly great-looking real-life couple fighting and fucking and generally being miserable in spite of how impossibly great-looking they are. The film was Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s final directorial effort, and even the curiosity factor and customary commercial reliability of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman couldn’t make a hit out of what was, at the end of the day, a difficult and rather arty relationship drama for grown-ups. It isn’t hard to predict a similar fate for By the Sea, in which similarly good-looking Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt likewise fight and fuck and are miserable, particularly since its European pace and pitch have already prompted most critics to dismiss it; The Hollywood Reporter slams its “stasis and dramatic flatness,” Variety dubs it “meandering and overlong in ways that will test the patience of even die-hard Brangelina fans,” and The Daily Beast, ever the aesthetes, deem it “Boring as F**k.” And maybe it is. But it’s also knowing, and unguarded, and refreshingly adult.
It’s also risky, and thank God for that. Jolie Pitt’s first two directorial efforts, In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken, were such dull, transparent plays for respectability, it was easy to forget the initial draw of her screen presence wasn’t just her talent or her sexiness, but her danger — she seemed capable of anything, onscreen and off. In the early scenes of By the Sea (which she both directed and wrote), her performance leans towards the same kind of turgidness; she spends a lot of time lying listlessly around a French hotel room, smoking cigarettes and gazing out windows, the portrait of ennui.
Her character Vanessa and husband Roland (husband Brad) are Americans on holiday. He’s a blocked writer hoping for inspiration, and she’s a former dancer recovering from an undisclosed trauma. They say they’ve come “to get away from it all,” but they fall immediately into what are clearly their worn-groove patterns: she resents his drinking, he resents her misery and pill-popping, and each resentment feeds the other. Who knows which came first. It doesn’t even matter anymore.
The honeymooning couple next door isn’t helping matters any; they can hear the newlyweds through the walls, the sounds of their sex all but sneering at Vanessa and Roland, who won’t even touch each other anymore. But one day or another (Jolie Pitt’s direction and Christian Berger’s sun-soaked cinematography beautifully captures the blurring of their fading nights and bleary-eyed mornings), Vanessa discovers, behind an end table, a large hole in the wall that separates the room. When she peaks in, she can clearly see the gorgeous, frequently naked couple going at it. She doesn’t blink. Later, Roland catches her in the act, and she asks the question that finally cracks the door in their marriage: “Will you watch with me?”
That scene, and the sequences that follow, are a remarkably candid acknowledgment of the complexities of adult married sexuality, of how the specter of outwardly directed desire can serve as both a marital aid and a jealousy-prone obstruction (and, often, both at once). Their voyeurism clears out the carnal logjam between them, but Jolie Pitt’s script doesn’t leave it at that, either; she understands the difference between a kink and a fetish, between something you like and something you require.
And she provides plenty of juicy subtext for close-readers. Aside from the obvious parallel between the voyeurs on screen and those in the audience, there’s a sense that the duality of the couples mirrors that of the stars; they’re both newlyweds and long-timers, with By the Sea landing in theaters a decade after their initial, combustible pairing in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. “Are you worried that is going to be us after years of marriage?” the young man next door asks his bride, and Vanessa seems certain of it, even invested in it, buying him a leather jacket that prompts Roland to note, “I had that jacket when we met.” The metaphorical nature of their interplay seems underscored by the ease of their peeping; like the air conditioning vent that allowed Gena Rowlands to eavesdrop, with crystal clarity, in Woody Allen’s Another Woman, a hole of this size would be hard to miss on the other side of the wall (and indeed, I kept waiting for them to be discovered). But a story like this isn’t about realism and logistics; they must see the couple clearly not because they’re real people, but because they’re a reminder of the passion Vanessa and Roland once had, and can still unlock. What’s tricky is what they do with it afterwards.
I won’t pretend that By the Sea isn’t crippled by considerable flaws: bouts of outright silliness, patches of dialogue that border on self-parody, an admittedly languid pace (though I find myself falling into their rhythms, rather than resisting them), and a soapy third-act reveal that turns out to be pretty small potatoes. Yet there’s something unshakable about it, and something remarkable about the fact that it exists at all — that a major studio is releasing a film this (seemingly) personal, written and directed by a female filmmaker, which so eagerly subverts the sympathies and personas of its superstar leads. And, sorry, there’s nothing boring about that.
By the Sea is out Friday in limited release.