Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 2 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 0; Sex /Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
A cheerful heart is a good medicine,
but a downcast spirit dries up the bones.
The title of Angelina Jolie Pitt’s film (she also wrote the script) reminded me of an old song (1914) that Spike Jones’ popularized in 1947, “By the Beautiful Sea.” The chorus includes the lines, “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea!/You and me, you and me, oh how happy we’ll be!” The couple in Jolie’s film come to the beautiful sea off the France’s Côte d’Azur in the 1970s, but show no sign of the happiness celebrated in the bouncy tune.
They do not frolic in the waves like the couple in the song. Indeed, once they check into the small hotel opposite the tiny town, they spend little time together. Once in the swing of New York’s art and literati world, Roland (Brad Pitt) has not been able to repeat his first success as a novelist. Vanessa (Jolie) was a dancer, but gave it up, for some unspecified but apparently traumatic reason.
Roland sets up his typewriter before the window overlooking the scenic bay, but spends his time drinking, beginning with a glass of gin in the morning, and then much of the day imbibing at the little bar presided over by the friendly manager/bar tender. Vanessa pops prescription drugs and sits languidly on the balcony looking out at the cove. Each morning she sees a fisherman laboriously rowing his boat out to sea. Each night she watches him return. We wonder why these two stay together, there seeming to be no passion left in their marriage. They do not converse. Roland obviously would like to talk, but Vanessa, seemingly angry about something, refuses. They have been married 14 years, but unless something happens, they probably will not reach a 15th Anniversary.
For a while they are the hotel’s only occupants, but then a young honey mooning couple arrive. Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) waste no time in consummating their marriage, their grunts of ecstasy easily heard through the thin walls. Soon Vanessa discovers a peephole that allows her to watch the couple. Later Roland watches with her, the two eating their supper while indulging in voyeurism. The two couples become a foursome for a meal and a day of sailing. Maybe Lea and François are that “something” that needs to happen to the older couple?
The film will not be for everyone. Only those used to the European style of filmmaking, one more concerned with style and a depiction of the mundane than plot, will appreciate this languid work. It seems that Ms. Jolie-Pitt has been studying the films of the great Italian master of ennui, Michelangelo Antonioni. In regards to the ancient proverb, Lea and François have not only cheerful hearts, but kind ones as well as they reach out to the couple with downcast spirits. Thus this is not only a story of turning around a disintegrating relationship, but also one of grace.