It's clear why Angelina Jolie Pitt became a star. She was a sexpot with talent and, just as crucially, her feline beauty was a sexpot breed we'd never seen. Past glamazons like Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Jayne Mansfield trailed a whiff of insecurity. We could sense that they were wounded, hungry or so uncomfortable in their ripe skin that they had to wear it like a joke. But a 24-year-old Jolie Pitt owned her curves and the messages they spelled. She spilled over with her own sexual vitality, and her offscreen life — the passion, the quick marriages, the vial of blood — was proof that this was America's first red-blooded, blue-chip goddess, one so gifted that, four years into her acting career, she exploded into the public consciousness by winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted.
It's unclear why Angelina Jolie Pitt became a director. Three films into her second career, there's no sense of a filmmaker burning with stories she wants to tell, other than a drizzle of sanctimony and self-seriousness. Her movies are handsome, hard-to-swallow pills without a spark of life — add them together and you couldn't start a fire, the way the actress once did, effortlessly, with a quick grin in trash like Gone in 60 Seconds. Even the best of Jolie Pitt's efforts, last year's Unbroken, lacked a human soul. She could shoot a scene of a prisoner of war getting flogged as if it were a picture postcard (and do it while still making us furious at his captors), but when it came to the crucial turn of that man later forgiving his enemies, she punted and cut to a screen crawl.
Jolie Pitt's latest, By the Sea, is a smaller story with a bigger personal risk. For the first time, she's both director and star, and she's even written the script. It's a sun-baked romantic drama about an unhappy couple who decamp to a French beach town during the Nixon administration so that the husband (Brad Pitt) can write a book while the wife (Jolie Pitt) refuses to do anything at all. Every morning before Vanessa wakes up, Roland heads to the bar and proceeds to spend the day getting soused without scribbling a word. (Literally — Jolie Pitt so distrusts subtlety that his notepad remains entirely blank. He can't even doodle?)
Meanwhile, Vanessa, a depressed ex-dancer, slides into pussy-bow blouses and poses in their bedroom like a retro-chic Gucci ad. It's the kind of movie where the fabulous couple zip into town in a convertible you could barely fit a toothbrush into, but once they're inside the hotel they suddenly own six heavy trunks and a typewriter, enough luggage that the missus can go to bed in a fabulous nightgown and awaken, still in full makeup and unsmudged false eyelashes, wearing another. And then she'll turn to the camera and shed a single tear.
In the opening scene, the car purrs along with the unsmiling couple, hair barely deigning to ruffle in the breeze, listening to Serge Gainsbourg, the kind of obvious musical touchstone you'd expect less from a jet-set international ambassador than a film-school undergrad in Kansas. Pitt is behind the wheel, though in the film itself he's simply along for the ride. His Roland is a blond-mustached prat. When an elderly widower attempts to give marital advice, Roland snaps, “We had a life you couldn't imagine,” emphasis on you. Mostly, however, Roland exists to love — or at least gaze at — gloomy Vanessa, both his character and, it would seem, the actor himself wondering how much they gotta give to make their woman happy.
But the film's focus is on the oppressively groomed Jolie, gliding across the frame, her unblinking eyes as large as oysters, her face as unmoving as a Noh mask. Though she rarely leaves the room, Vanessa's insistence on thick kohl eyeliner and teased hair implies a hefty amount of vanity — it's the only personality trait we get. Yet that rarely figures into the plot, except for a scene where Vanessa frets she's underdressed for a fine restaurant and then, inside, thrashes about on the dance floor as if she's trying to beat The Ramones to inventing punk. That two-minute bit destroys any consistency in her character, who is otherwise a one-note drip, except for when she rouses herself to spy on the honeymooners (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) next door. Roland also spots the golfball-size hole in the wall and, being as he's desperate for any connection with his wife, the two spend their date nights crouched on the floor watching the lovebirds bone.
The young couple never notice the hole themselves, which leads us to think that they're dumb, or maybe just busy being happy. Or maybe Jolie Pitt believes you have to be dumb to be happy. Regardless, the film doesn't demonstrate belief in much of anything except that audiences must be so desperate for a peek into these stars' private lives that we'll invest energy in their mopey fictional counterparts, who can't even invest in themselves. In lieu of tension or suspense, the script is simply structured around withholding the reason why Vanessa is miserable. The revelation turns out to be something most people could have predicted in the first reel yet still manages to feel like a slap to womankind.
I'm sick to death of films that treat past tragedies like twist endings — instead of exploring emotions like mature adults, their creators simply kick all that to the conclusion and pretend all the cryptic, shallow posturing had a purpose. Such belabored reticence seems to have become the point of Jolie's whole career. She still has that movie-star oomph that makes us feel grateful every time she condescends to smile. But it's time Saint Angelina reverted to the naughtiness that made her truly electric. Instead, here, the best giggle comes when Roland assures Vanessa she's “a good woman.” “Jesus,” she groans, “have I become that dull?” Yes, in fact, and with her name all over the credits, there's no one else to blame.
BY THE SEA | Written and directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt | Universal Pictures | ArcLight Hollywood, Landmark