In 1970s France, Vanessa (Angelina Jolie), a former dancer, and her husband Roland (Brad Pitt), an American writer are travelling the country and arrive in a seaside town. Under the surface is an emotionally violent relationship.

3.5
One of the most interesting and intimate relationship dramas seen on screen in recent years.

Driving in a silver Citroën convertible, a beautiful couple, no longer young, travel down winding roads to a secluded seaside hotel. It’s the south of France, 1973. In a spacious suite overlooking the white cliffs and cerulean ocean, he sets up his typewriter and begins to drink as if his life depended on it. He’s channeling Hemingway, no doubt, with a tough moustache and leather-bound notebook. Meanwhile, the woman, so thin it hurts to look at her, and elegantly clad in head-to-toe Yves Saint Laurent, reclines on the bed and pops some pills. She seems too bored to speak. The pain in this marriage is palpable. Its cause remains a mystery, gradually revealed as the holiday progresses and the couple becomes intrigued by the sexually voracious honeymooners next door (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud). The result is surely one of the most interesting and intimate relationship dramas seen on screen in recent years.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the central couple in By the Sea, Vanessa and Roland, are played by Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt, one of the world’s most famous real-life partnerships. That the film is written and directed by Jolie Pitt, and candidly depicts a troubled 14-year-old marriage, is part of its voyeuristic pleasure – and the storyline itself revolves around the notion of voyeurism and our fascination with the intimate lives of others. And while By the Sea is a fictional story, apparently written by Jolie Pitt with no intention of playing a role herself, there’s something courageously revealing about this exploration of grief, sexual dysfunction and the ennui of long-term love.

"Jolie Pitt proves she has talent far beyond her ridiculous celebrity."

Set on the stunning Côte d’Azur (though actually shot on the Maltese island of Gozo) and seeming to channel European directors of the '60s and '70s (Godard’s Contempt and Antonioni’s La Notte come to mind), By the Sea risks accusations of pretentiousness. The dialogue is minimal and the takes are sometimes long. There are extended scenes where not much happens. And yet it’s never boring – not if you’re an adult interested in the small moments that shift the balance between spouses who know each other too well – like the way Roland continually corrects his wife’s discarded face-down sunglasses.

The inevitable seasons of a marriage – and the tides of passion that come and go – are a key preoccupation here, with the idealistic and passionate honeymooners setting off the sterility of the older couple. There’s also a beautiful performance by Niels Arestrup as the elderly widowed bar owner who pours Roland’s endless drinks and tells of his grief and longing for his dead wife. "So you’re just beginning then," he remarks when Roland tells him he’s been with Vanessa 14 years. "Why not just love her?" is his simple but profound advice.

Peepholes and mirrors are a frequent device used here by cinematographer Christian Berger (The White Ribbon), whose inventive use of natural light gives the film an intimate beauty. An elegant and unobtrusive score by Gabriel Yared nicely underlines the drama.

Not every moment succeeds in By the Sea. The performances and dialogue are mannered in a way that may annoy some, especially towards the dénouement. But in her third directorial outing (after In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken), Jolie Pitt proves she has talent far beyond her ridiculous celebrity. To dismiss this ambitious film as a vanity project – as many reviewers have – is to miss its courage and its wisdom.

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