By The Sea

I never mind watching Brad Pitt. He’s a great movie star, handsome to look at and easy with dialogue, from Ocean’s 11 banter, to blockbuster grandiosity such as WWZ and even art-house poetry, as in The Tree of Life.

So when the stinky reviews wafted in for By The Sea***, I winced. Written and directed by and co-starring Angeline Jolie Pitt, this is a relationship drama about a failing marriage, performed by two of the most famous married people on the planet.

Set in a beautiful, slightly faded hotel in what’s supposed to be the South of France (but it’s actually shot in Gozo, Malta), Brad and Angelina play a New York couple – why is it Americans can always afford the best rooms in European hotels? – trying to save their stagnant relationship. He’s a writer who drinks too much and hangs out in the local bar all day, chatting to the patron, Michel, played by Niles Arestrup, from A Prophet.

Meanwhile, she, a former dancer, is in a pill-popped stupor, spending all day in the hotel room, lying on the balcony lounger in a floppy hat and big sunglasses. She’s obsessed by a fishing boat she watches go out in the morning and return at sunset. “He goes with the tide,” she whispers.

I think it’s the 1970s, but it’s not certain, although the TVs in the room are old and boxy and when they’re on, the news seems to be black and white and about President Nixon. There’s a lot of Gainsbourg on the soundtrack and good old European drinks on the sideboard, into which Brad makes admirably hefty inroads.

All this allows Brad to smoke and down gin for breakfast – he loves a prop, does Brad – and speak French and wear his shirts open necked, sleeves rolled up, tucked into slacks with various smart belts, accessorised with a trilby hat and nice dark shades. It’s a good look, and the moustache looks good, too.

Things spice up for opiated Angie when she discovers a peep hole into the next-door bedroom into which a honeymooning French couple have just checked – Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent. Ange takes some delight in watching them make love.

Eventually, after several nights of Brad returning pissed from the bar, he too discovers the peep hole and he and Ange vaguely confront their problems while watching the neighbours shag.

Along the way, Brad and Ange – I should call them Roland and Nessa, their character names, but we all know they’re Brad and Ange – go for the psychological jugular, playing cruel mind game with each other, goading, poking. She wears some great hats and scarf combos and won’t go out without her huge false eyelashes.

One immediately thinks to lump this with, say, Tom and Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut, or Affleck and Lopez in Gigli, or Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away. But, you know, it really isn’t on that level of bad. If she thinks it’s paying respect to Antonioni or Leila Cavani, then it’s in that mode and the insights and psychology are a bit pat. “Now my insides match my outsides,” she says at one nearly torrid emotional climax.

But this is always watchable, intriguing, even. The cars are nice, the hotel and the furniture is fabulous, the sea alluring, the sunshine distracting. There’s a sensuality to the direction, a vague eroticism, and a fascination at watching the couple, mirrored of course in the couple’s own fascination at watching the other couple.

Even if that fascination includes wondering why on earth they’d make this, By The Sea has a curiosity value and fluidity that shouldn’t be dismissed. And now I know where I want to go for my next weekend break.

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