Dismissed by many as a vanity project for its writer-director star, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea is much better than this snippy put-down would have you believe.

A marital drama that casts Hollywood’s most glamorous spouses as an unhappily married couple holed up in a hotel in the early-1970s south of France, the film is conspicuously languid and glossy, but beneath the elegant angst Jolie Pitt appears to be playing a teasingly revelatory game with her own celebrity persona and the public’s voracious gaze. 

By the Sea’s glamorous couple – Brad Pitt’s writer Roland and Jolie Pitt’s former dancer Vanessa – certainly look a million dollars as they roll up in a sleek Citroën convertible to a secluded Mediterranean cove (Malta’s Gozo standing in for the Cote d’Azur), Louis Vuitton luggage in the boot. Yet the air of affluent poise disguises a gnawing discontent in their marriage.

Roland, his writing blocked, spends his days drinking in the local bar, while Vanessa, stuck in neurasthenic torpor, pops pills in their hotel suite. The young newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) who move into the room next door seem to rebuke the older couple with their joyful vitality and noisy sex life. Then Vanessa discovers a peephole in their bedroom wall that allows her to spy on the neighbouring pair.

The voyeurism stirs Vanessa and Roland’s marriage in unexpected ways, and it can’t help but stir our view of the Jolie-Pitt marriage, too. That union has been the object of so much prurient speculation over the years that turning the stars’ on-screen characters into active voyeurs is a provocatively ironic reversal.

That’s not all Jolie Pitt is attempting here. Her film’s main subject, explored with sympathy and sincerity, is grief and how to survive it.

In mood and style, Jolie Pitt is clearly harking back to the languorous ennui of 1960s Antonioni films with their well-heeled, ennui-ridden protagonists, and although her film lacks its predecessors’ disquieting mystery, it is surprisingly beguiling.

Certificate 15. Runtime 122 mins. Director Angelina Jolie Pitt