In the wham-bam 2005 blockbuster Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie starred as a couple whose stale marriage is markedly improved when they discover they are actually both undercover assassins hired to kill each other. That movie made nearly half a billion dollars—and of course birthed Brangelina, an eternal gift to hopeless romantics, tabloid editors, and portmanteau coiners everywhere. Ten years later, the pair (now also legally wed in real life) have reunited on screen for another marital battle of wills in By the Sea. Here, though, it’s the sun-drenched Côte d’Azur circa 1973, not sterile suburbia. And instead of Glocks and missile launchers, they’re killing each other softly with passive aggression and unfiltered cigarettes. He’s a blocked novelist who avoids his empty notebook and chugs gin for breakfast; she’s a depressive ex-dancer who sulks prettily in a series of amazing silk peignoirs and stares blankly at walls. Both are tormented by some unmentionable, unexplained trauma that only spying on the ravishing young honeymooners next door (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud, both established stars in France) seems to offer any respite from.
Everyone and everything here is gorgeous, in the way of certain European art-house films from 50 years ago: all dappled and art-directed and set to a groovy Serge Gainsbourg soundtrack. But Jolie Pitt, who also wrote and directed, shows a lot of skin (her own and her cast’s) without ever really getting under it. Misery doesn’t just love good-looking company; it needs an emotional center and a satisfying narrative arc, too. C+