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Do not be deceived. A first glance at Angelina Jolie in By the Sea, the new film of which she is both star and director, would suggest a woman having a good time. Under a wide-brimmed leopard skin hat, she basks in the passenger seat of a silver convertible, hurtling along the French Riviera. But no, in fact, this slyly witty, epically stylised movie is a study of misery: gorgeous, sun-dazzled misery.
It is the early 1970s and Jolie is Vanessa, an American actress. The driver is her failing novelist husband Roland; he, teasingly, is played by her actual husband Brad Pitt. Arriving at the blissful nook on the Med where the pair are to stay, we glimpse the shape of her in the opening line: “I smell fish.” The tone, often bordering on parody, is that of the grand old European art movie: languorous, chic, stuffed with tortured ennui.
We can only gawp at the couple’s immaculate period costume, their lighters and sunglasses; design fetishists may find themselves short of breath just watching them unpack. A typewriter appears, Campari red, at which Roland stares while his wife glumly reads Vogue. Soon, the days find him pickling himself at the local bar, while Vanessa haunts the hotel room in a range of negligees. At one point, a single tear runs down that movie star cheek.
Much of this is fantastically dull, and that may be the point. After the torment comes a bracing dose of voyeurism. The targets are a young neighbouring couple on their honeymoon, whom Vanessa takes to spying on through a hole in the wall. For one of the world’s most lusted after women to play peeper not peeped-at is a neat touch: the role reversal extends into the room next door, the female half of the other couple taking photos of her new husband, asking: “Is this turning you on?”
As a director, Jolie is now on to her third film. Her most recent, Unbroken, the biopic of second world war hero Louis Zamperini, was so respectful it barely moved. Here though, there’s a knowing glee in casting Pitt and inviting the world to compare the terrible marriage on screen with their own. Her script is just as self-aware — “I suppose it’s best we don’t say a word,” her husband says — although it does come with one awful clunk of exposition. Still, her success here is as a recorder of beauty: the clothes, the knick-knacks, the view from the hotel, herself and her husband. Mostly herself, actually, draped over the furniture, mascara flawlessly smudged. But then, such is tradition: the director besotted with their leading lady.