What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, might truly be the most narcissistic vanity project of all time. By the Sea finds Angeline Jolie Pitt (I'm thoroughly discombobulated by her new surname, incidentally) writing and directing the story of an unhappily married, couple played by herself and Brad Pitt, grousing around the French Riviera, and in the process teaching us Stuff About Life, or something along those lines. It is the exact movie that one would expect a superstar actor, detached from from any sort of real-life concerns, to make as her first directorial effort, and yet Jolie managed to avoid those traps, at least, with her first two films behind the camera, In the Land of Blood and Honey and Unbroken. They're both pretty dodgy movies, but they come out of a seeming good-faith effort to understand the wide world and the people living in it. By the Sea is rich people porn - quite literally, the plot revolves around how Vanessa and Roland (the characters played by the Jolie-Pitts) spy on a younger married couple fucking, courtesy of a hole in the hotel wall, and decide to manipulate them as a result - and tone-deaf in all the very worst ways.

The film is such a throwback to 1970s European arthouse cinema that it's damn near a parody. The costumes (designed by Ellen Mirojnick) working overtime to cloud our sense of when the film takes place certainly helps with that impression. By the Sea is, for a large part of its running time, concerned solely with lifeless, glossy images of beautiful people staring leadenly at nothing, with gorgeous Mediterranean backgrounds shot by Christian Berger in the style of a coffee table book. The vigor with which nothing happens is quite impressive, as is the listless languor of Jolie and Pitt's performances (it is quite possibly the most wholly uncharismatic that Pitt has ever been in anything).

Glaciers recede and empires fall as we watch the upscale ennui waft off the screen along with the omnipresent cigarette smoke, and the longer we spend with the awful, awful people in the film's center (to her credit, Jolie Pitt isn't apparently trying to pretend that they're not that awful), the harder it is to figure out why. The actors are too bad for there to be any sort of real insight into the characters or the nature of married life; the images are too blandly pretty and conventionally framed for this to be some kind of Antonioniesque study of place, as has been gamely suggested by some critics, positive and hostile alike. If it's meant to be an Antonioni riff, it's an illiterate one.

Credit where it is barely due: Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud bring a remarkable and desperately needed influx of life and psychological acuity as the young marrieds whose vitality intrigues and then arouses the bitter old protagonists. When the movie is just about them and how they cope with the toxicity of the middle-aged people staring them down, it's almost even interesting and exciting. That's hardly sufficient to make By the Sea worthwhile at any level, but at least it keeps the film from the totally enervating experience that the first half-hour promises.