The picturesque roads lead to the Mediterranean as a vintage convertible rolls past an ancient church in a cliffside town. But forget about that stunning vista–Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt are in that car, co-starring for the first time in 10 years and drawing us into a soulful, seductive drama. They play Roland and Vanessa, married for 14 years and headed for a hotel in the south of France to reconnect after a tragedy. It’s 1973; he’s a blocked writer, she’s a former dancer, and they speak in the terse language of dissolution. Vanessa rejects his advances, preferring to stare at the ocean. “Have a nice day,” he mutters, leaving to write, and drink, in the bar. “I won’t,” she replies. As Roland bonds with the café’s wise owner, Vanessa finds a hole in the wall and spies on the sexy honeymoon of neighbors Lea and François.
When Vanessa befriends the newlyweds, Roland suspiciously confronts her: Is she delivering a death knell to her own marriage, pushing others toward misery, or both?
Jolie Pitt, in her third film as a director, infuses her original screenplay with a sparseness reminiscent of Hemingway’s tales of mislaid love and Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinematic alienation. But By the Sea is its own lovely creation, deadly serious about how grief divides, conquers and possibly unites.
The movie is photographed and scored with era-specific dreaminess, but the couple at its center are wickedly focused. One of Pitt’s secret strengths is his watchful stillness, used here as an empathy gauge. Jolie Pitt, directing herself for the first time, is as brave as ever, even when making a movie filled with opaque, Euro-style artiness. Yet By the Sea dares us not to dive in. Confidence goes a long way, in love or filmmaking.
This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.