They are arguably the most fascinating and biggest male and female stars on the planet now, and the new marital drama By The Sea pairs Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt for the first time in a decade (since Mr. & Mrs. Smith). It also marks the first film to bring them together professionally, and, as it turns out, personally (the pair have also produced this film). Throw in an exotic Mediterranean location in Malta, gorgeous cinematography (by Christian Berger, Oscar-nominated for Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon), beautiful clothes, and beautiful people.

pete hammond review badgeBut as I say in my video review (click the link above), this is not perhaps the movie those romantic elements might suggest, and in fact as written and directed by Jolie Pitt is a throwback to the kinds of European art films more commonly seen in the 1970s or ’60s. It is a deliberately paced, slow-moving dissection of a marriage in crisis and set in that earlier era reminiscent of European classics like La Notte and L’Avventura or even 1967’s Two For The Road which starred Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in a 12-year dissection of a marriage. By The Sea also has echoes of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in terms of a raw look at marriage. That latter film starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who, like the Pitts have done here, teamed many times on screen when they were married. It’s always interesting to try to look beyond the actual script and try to imagine what is taken from real life. Some audiences may try to turn this one into a guessing game as well, but Jolie Pitt assures this is not remotely close to their own union.

I admire Jolie Pitt tremendously as an actress, a filmmaker and a humanitarian, and it is interesting to see her move in a different direction from her first two directorial efforts, In The Land Of Blood And Honey and last year’s Unbroken. Both of those dealt with survival against the background of war. This time it is purely survival in a relationship, and the serious nature of the filmmaking suggests this is not remotely a box office play.

The pair play Vanessa and Roland, and the reasons for this marital crisis are only very slowly revealed — and I won’t hint at them here. Suffice to say Jolie Pitt presents it all as a bit of a puzzle in her screenplay. Roland is a frustrated writer with writers’ block who spends much of his time in the luxury hotel bar where they are staying. He is handed wise advice from the owner (Niels Arestrup) and drinks a lot. Vanessa sulks a lot, clearly unhappy and often alone, rarely venturing out of the hotel room. Soon she spots the young, good-looking French man Francois (Melvil Poupand) on the balcony next door. He is on his honeymoon with his new wife Lea (Melanie Laurent). Before you know it, Vanessa is looking through a peephole in the wall watching them in the throes of lovemaking. Soon she is joined by Roland as the two peer into a marriage just at the beginning and try to rekindle sparks of their own all these years later.

The filmmaking here by Jolie Pitt is first-rate, and she not only gets a fine performance from herself but also from Pitt, who takes a role that might not have been very sympathetic and gives him real dimension and even pathos in the exploration of a man desperate to find a key back into his marriage. The music score by Gabriel Yared is lush and beautiful just like all the surroundings, but what lies beneath is a compelling reason to see By The Sea. So, if this kind of adventurous Euro-style American art film sounds like it could be your cup of tea, go for it. It might be a love-it-or-hate-it response, but you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Universal releases the film in a limited pattern Friday.

Do you plan to see By The Sea? Let us know what you think.