Angelina Jolie Pitt's By the Sea opens with a long shot over a sharp precipice that fairly screams upcoming crisis for the handsome couple driving along its scenic edge. That's about as lively as things get in this undercooked mood piece about a disintegrating marriage between a stalled writer and his glum wreck of a wife. It helps not one whit that the two are played by Hollywood's starriest couple, who radiate about as much onscreen chemistry here as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman did in Eyes Wide Shut.
For a while at least, that's the point. Though he has a shiny red typewriter (we're in the 1970s) and a hotel room with a view in a tastefully plush French chateau, novelist Roland (Brad Pitt) can't seem to find his subject, even though she's wasting away right under his nose. A former dancer, Vanessa (Jolie Pitt) mopes day and night in attractive peignoirs, refusing all comfort, fun, or distraction. When her husband returns from the local bar blind drunk, the two drink some more and entertain one another with small talk about how terrible everything is and how appalling they've both become.
This goes on for what feels like a century, with regular breaks for changes into tailored frocks and innumerable close-ups of Jolie's tear-streaked features that have the unfortunate effect of making one of cinema's loveliest faces look like an outtake from Big Eyes. Alas, costume design and mournful gazes don't make a movie. Jolie Pitt has made a careful study of mid-20th century European art cinema, and Gallic ambiance abounds, along with a top-drawer supporting cast including Niels Arestrup as a simple but world-wise local barkeep, and a mercifully upbeat Melanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud as young newlyweds enjoying mutual respect and abundant sex in the room adjoining Roland and Vanessa's.
Sometime after their arrival, the movie takes a turn for the mildly kinky when, having discovered a peephole into their young neighbors' room, Roland and Vanessa begin dining, drinking and healing around the peephole. I am making none of this up.
In two other heartfelt films (Unbroken and In the Land of Blood and Honey) Jolie Pitt has shown herself a professional, committed filmmaker, and she knows how to put together a skilled crew. On the evidence of By the Sea, though, the purely personal is not her forte. In the end Roland and Vanessa's distress, vapid and insufficiently motivated to start with, is further imperiled by the director's heavy-handed screenwriting. Buried beneath all the declamatory chat ("You're a good woman") and strenuous atmosphere is a genuine source for the couple's grief that has to do with the absence of children. That it goes unexplored until the eleventh hour when it's briefly raised and then dropped with a thud, is pretty astonishing coming from a director who's justly famed for the open heart with which she has expanded her own family. Instead we get more coastal driving, while Jane Birkin murmurs period-perfect sweet nothings on the soundtrack.