Meta with a vengeance, “By the Sea” stars Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pittas itinerant married artists who are suffering, beautifully, through a rough patch. Any resemblance to real life is strictly coincidental and completely intentional. At first luxurious blush it’s a jet-setting marital melodrama, one of those he-said, she-said (and wept) encounter sessions decked with designer shades, to-die-for digs and millionaire tears. More interestingly, the movie, which Ms. Jolie Pitt wrote and directed, is a knowing or at least a ticklishly amusing demonstration of celebrity and its relay of gazes from one of the most looked-at women in the world. Take, watch, she seems to say, this is my body.
And, man, does she know how to make an entrance. Supremely self-aware, Ms. Jolie Pitt introduces her marrieds — Vanessa and Roland — like the international movie stars they’re played by, with the two roaring into the picture in a silver Citroën convertible with Mr. Pitt behind the wheel. They look as glamorous as a Vanity Fair spread, he in his sporty mustache and porkpie hat and she in an animal-print hat the size of a beach umbrella. It’s the kind of statement accessory that you can imagine Elizabeth Taylor upstaging when she went tootling around with her husband, Richard Burton, back when they were co-starring, on screen and off, as the world’s most famous couple.
“By the Sea” takes place in the early 1970s, just around the time Liz and Dick were starring in “Divorce His, Divorce Hers,” a marital made-for-TV drama that, like some of the big-screen films they made together, played on the similarities between the actors and their characters. (Their lives imitated fiction again when they announced their separation after the movie’s broadcast.) It’s impossible to imagine Ms. Jolie Pitt rip-roaring it up in public like Taylor, who lived her life out loud as she perfected playing Elizabeth Taylor, the role of a lifetime. Ms. Jolie Pitt, by contrast, like others in her elite Madonna-schooled sorority (Beyoncé, et al.), has been engaged in an exceptionally skilled version of celebrity peekaboo for some time — now you see the “real” her, now you don’t.
The game continues in “By the Sea,” which starts lightly enough with Vanessa and Roland’s moving into a French hotel nestled in a Mediterranean cove seemingly used only by a single diligent fisherman and a few desultory extras. (Malta plays the South of France, if not especially convincingly.) There, they set up house with piles of Louis Vuitton luggage and bottles of booze and pills, as well as a red manual typewriter. A novelist, Roland has come to the hotel to work but ends up spending most of his time at the local bar, his pen impotently hovering over white pages, while Vanessa lounges in and out of bed, her ruined eye makeup streaking her wet face like black tears. These salty pearls are the foundation for the story that she will write, one monumental tear at a time.
And so Vanessa weeps and she weeps, sometimes while framed in a window of the hotel and generally while dressed in one of her black or white negligees. Working with the excellent cinematographer Christian Berger, Ms. Jolie Pitt seems to be giving her audience exactly what it demands, on screen and off: herself. In medium shots and close-ups, in daytime and night, she turns her face and body (or rather Vanessa’s) into a landscape of classic feminine suffering, becoming our latest cinematic lady of perpetual misery. In one shot, Vanessa stands at a window smoking, her eyes hidden behind her oversize Yves Saint Laurent glasses; in another, she sits on a bed, eyes shiny and unfocused; in another, she stretches out catlike on a chair until her body fills the frame from coifed head to perfect toe.
Every so often, the story, such as it is, switches over to Roland, who does most of his drinking, eating and not-writing in the company of the amiable barman, Michel (the great French actor Niels Arestrup), and the less voluble hotel owner, Patrice (Richard Bohringer, another welcome French face). Ms. Jolie Pitt may be married to one of the world’s most famous men, but despite an occasional beauty shot of Mr. Pitt, she doesn’t showcase him as an object of desire. For a long initial stretch, he instead plays the cozy, intimate role of the seemingly weary, inattentive husband, sometimes with stubble and boxer shorts, at other times with a perfunctory goodbye or a slammed door. Given Vanessa’s waterworks, it’s hard not to feel for the guy.
It isn’t long into “By the Sea” that curiosity morphs into impatience as you wonder what Ms. Jolie Pitt means to do with her tears and poses and whether she’s actually starting to punish you for wanting to look at her. Like a lot of stars, she has no problem making you wait. But she’s also clearly working within the idiom of the classic art film, including through her deployment of narrative and character ambiguity. (The catchy soundtrack includes a song from Chantal Goya, the yé-yé pop star of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculin Féminin.”) Vanessa’s tears may be personal (and explained in one of the least persuasive scenes), but they flow from the same wellspring that has given us the female tears and snot that have streamed through art cinema since at least Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
Ms. Jolie Pitt takes chances in “By the Sea,” including with the audience’s patience and its laughter, and it proves far more adventurous than her previous feature as a director, “Unbroken,” a dully hagiographic biopic about the Olympian Louis Zamperini. Despite some early flashes of levity, “By the Sea” seems as if it’s terminally (and unconsciously) headed into self-parody or climes as grim as her earlier films when it takes an abrupt, unexpectedly witty and notionally perverse turn. (Her feature directing debut was the war movie “In the Land of Bread and Honey.”) One day, Vanessa notices a sizable hole in the hotel room, leans into it like a distaff Norman Bates and begins spying on the young newlyweds next door (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud as Lea and François), an interest that evolves into a passion that she later shares with Roland.
It’s an unusual, at times destabilizing act when a woman both directs and puts herself on camera simply because it upends (still!) the historical balance in which men paint and shoot the pictures. The persistence of that inequity (and the world’s comfort with that imbalance) is one reason that it’s a creative choice when male directors and critically sanctioned artists like Miranda July turn the camera on themselves, but mere vulgar vanity when the popular likes of Barbra Streisand does. For her part, Ms. Jolie Pitt, a woman of well-publicized extremes, isn’t content to merely parade around on screen; from shot to shot, she makes herself a full-scale cinematic spectacle, all but forcing her image on you. And, then, she does what you least expect: She surprises you by shifting Vanessa’s gaze — and yours — to the hot couple next door.
In effect, she turns Lea and François into the movie’s other Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt: the sexy, teasingly elusive and insistently watched couple who are often seen through a peephole that hides as much as it reveals. It’s a surprisingly funny, spiky development partly because it transforms Vanessa into a voyeur, and a ravenous one at that. Lea and François evolve into a marital aid for Vanessa and Roland, but with complications, as the peephole becomes a narrative rabbit hole leading to old hurts. That Vanessa is, however, also an audience member, a moviegoer of a type, becomes even clearer when the (unsurprising) tragic root of her tears is revealed, a disclosure that can be read as an acid commentary on those who watch, desire and live through others. Ms. Jolie Pitt may not mind if you look — but watch out!
“By the Sea” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for sex and nipples. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes.