Brad Pitt’s character was propped up on one elbow in bed, lovingly watching his wife, played by Angelina Jolie Pitt, unload a bag of groceries in a French seaside hotel room when I heard it: My screening had an Audible Sigher.
I had been deep in a “By the Sea” reverie, wallowing in the fantasy world of golden-lit cliffs, 800-thread count sheets and angular cheekbones that writer-director Jolie Pitt created, but the man seated to my left was clearly not feeling it.
I understood Audible Sigher’s restlessness, even as I found it rude. “By the Sea” has too much of many things — brooding, drinking, the pair acting out long-term marital malaise in what often feels like real time — and too little story. At one point I found myself hoping that the rustic little fishing boat the camera follows into shore every morning would crash on the rocks, just so that something, anything, would happen.
But the movie is also surprisingly witty and self-aware and satisfies a genuine, red-blooded pleasure — to watch impossibly beautiful people fight and fool around in an impossibly beautiful place, in this case a picturesque island off Malta that feels as if God built it to house Restoration Hardware’s Mediterranean Collection. Dreamily shot by cinematographer Christian Berger, that voyeuristic treat is even richer when the screen chemistry is backed by a real-life marriage of two of the world’s most luminous movie stars.
I never once forgot that I was watching Pitt and Jolie Pitt in “By the Sea,” and that was part of the fun, likely in the same way that 1963 audiences watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton kiss in “Cleopatra” didn’t forget that they were witnessing another great celebrity romance. Or the same way that those of us who saw Jolie and Pitt in their first cinematic pairing, 2005’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” enjoyed the sparks of lust the then-new couple threw off the screen.
In “By the Sea,” a can-this-marriage-be-saved? drama set in the 1970s, Pitt plays Roland, a hard-drinking, has-been writer, and Jolie Pitt is Vanessa, a pill-popping former dancer, who take a vacation in a last-ditch effort to save their pitiful union. The reasons for their unhappiness are unclear — what could two people with such great bone structure and a cute little Citroen convertible possibly have to be sad about?
It’s a long time before the audience knows the answer to that question. In the meantime, Roland trudges down to the bar each morning, pretending to write, while Vanessa mopes in the room, wearing glorious, gauzy nightgowns and fluttering fake eyelashes for an audience of no one. So little happens in this section, it left me a lot of time to ponder such questions as, do these two actors own sweatpants? If we were friends, where would we go to brunch? Are these stars, as US Weekly promises, really just like us?
About 45 minutes in, Roland demands, “Are we ever going to talk about it?!” Oh, right, are you? Because clearly Audible Sigher would like to get to Act 2 (I’m doing fine). The story kicks into motion when a pair of comely newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) check into the room next door and have loud, happy sex. Roland and Vanessa discover a peephole and find the young couple’s passion contagious.
This is the part of the movie in which Jolie Pitt reveals that she has been punking us, that she knows exactly where she and her husband fit in the media ecosystem. You like to live vicariously through Brad and Angie, dear moviegoers? They know. And, sprawled on the floor next to the peephole, wine glasses in hand, their eyes twinkling, they are giving you want you want and laughing about it, too.
As a writer, Jolie Pitt is better at ideas than dialogue, much of which is leaden here. But the characters’ behaviors feel true: When Roland rights Vanessa’s tossed-aside designer sunglasses, or when she sets his bright red typewriter out on the table, they quietly reveal hints about their characters’ love and anger.
The other characters, including the delightful Frenchman Niels Arestrup as a wise bar owner, exist only to further Roland and Vanessa’s drama. How the couple use others becomes part of the story and cleverly implicates the audience.
Jolie Pitt’s first two features as a director, the 2014 World War II biopic “Unbroken” and the 2011 Bosnian war drama “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” were impressively ambitious for a fledgling filmmaker but also grim and dutiful. Here she tackles a new, equally challenging form — the European art film — but seems more relaxed and confident and reveals a welcome sly sense of humor.
For the Audible Sigher to my left, it was all clearly too much. For me, the pleasures were worth the pain in the same way that too much wine is worth the headache the next morning. This is probably not a good idea, I think, as the camera takes in its umpteenth shot of Brad’s character watching Angelina’s character gaze glumly over the green sea, but I’m having a helluva time. Keep pouring, madame director.
‘By the Sea’
MPAA rating: Rated R for strong sexuality, nudity and language.
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West L.A.