Angelina Jolie Pitt’s sun-kissed marital drama is like a stylish car stuck in second gear

By the Sea begins with cheeky, sunny chic: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt (as she’s now named) crest hillsides unsmilingly in a silver Citroën DS, before they rock up at the French seaside resort where the whole film will take place. Jane Birkin’s breathy 1969 chanson “Jane B” trills out from the stereo – it could be an advert for whatever his-and-hers perfumes the pair are wafting in, done as a retro homage to early Seventies Euro-vacation leisure style.

In fact, the film that unfolds is more an advert for wish-you-were-here ennui, done as a retro homage to Michelangelo Antonioni films (La notte, for instance) from the decade before. It’s Jolie Pitt’s third film as a director, and the first Brangelina vehicle since Mr and Mrs Smith (2005), the one that famously brought them together.

Based on its auteur’s track record, particularly 2014’s dreadful Unbroken, and the obvious first-world-problem pitfalls of casting these two, of all people, in a drama of navel-gazing marital discord, many predicted this would be The Pitts. The interesting thing? It’s not. Or not quite.

Jolie works hard to make this voyeur’s frustration and self-loathing sad rather than merely pathetic

Admittedly, the early stretches of the movie make life fairly easy for anyone determined to get the knives out. Jolie Pitt’s first words on screen, “I smell fish”, would perfectly suit the trainwreck iteration of this film you’re tempted to imagine.

She is Vanessa, or Nessa, a former ballerina clearly suffering from long-term depression, who spends most of their holiday languishing semi-dressed on their hotel room’s elegantly rumpled bedthrow, or snoozing on the balcony under pale yellow shades the size of saucers.

Pitt, meanwhile, is Roland, a borderline-famous writer whose one success – his first novel – is long behind him. Despite setting up a gleaming red Olivetti Valentine typewriter in their suite, he never uses it, preferring to idle the days away getting progressively more sloshed in a local café-bar, where he strikes up a friendship with the widowed proprietor (Niels Arestrup).

The couple spend long days largely keeping out of each other’s way, bicker when he gets to bed drunk, and never have sex. We soon surmise – some obscure flashes to womb-like images are handy prompts – that they’ve probably either lost a child or can’t have any.

Brad Pitt’s got drunken umbrage down pat Credit: Universal Pictures

It takes the arrival of two equally photogenic French newlyweds, played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, for a flicker of interest to cross Nessa’s wearily gorgeous face. A peephole into their adjacent suite, discovered by chance after she hears them energetically shagging, becomes her favourite toy in the absence of any attention from her increasingly blotto husband.

Jolie works hard to make this voyeur’s frustration and self-loathing sad rather than merely pathetic; it’s not a bad performance, but it’s an intentionally remote one, rarely inviting us in. Her trapped posture in the shower, when Pitt’s Roland tries to slip in alongside, makes it clear she’s locked herself away: only her eyes remain hungry. Interestingly, though Poupaud’s character is the one who goes out of his way to chat her up, it’s Laurent on whom her gaze rests more avidly.

Pitt’s habitually mumbling diction makes Roland hard to credit as truly fluent in French – though perhaps he’s no less convincing than other educated Americans abroad. There’s a good, sharp cut from him whacking down a whisky glass in their hotel to the aftermath a few hours later, as he props up Arestrup’s bar: he’s got drunken umbrage down pat, and drunken wobbles to the bathroom, and there are affecting moments when he tries to imagine the grief the older man is going through.

Sincerity isn’t the film’s problem; it’s more a question of mileage. There’s not much in the little psychodrama between these two couples we can’t guess at a stroke, meaning that all the cameraman (The White Ribbon’s Christian Berger) can do is drift around them teasing out a mood. It’s a wispy sort of mood – too thoughtfully played to deserve any kind of kicking, but not emotionally precise enough to bump the film out of second gear.

“We’ve got to stop being such assholes!”, spoken from wife to husband, are about the truest words in Jolie Pitt’s screenplay, but it feels almost like she’s berating herself for having made the film. Go easy, Angelina: it’s certainly got problems, but it’s still your best so far.