Roland and Vanessa (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Pitt) are an unhappily married couple from New York absconding to the south of France. He’s a fledgling writer in need of a quiet place to work and drink himself into a stupor. She’s a former dancer, haunted by something unspoken, and spending most of her days inside their ocean view room at the cliff-side Hotel la Mouette. He goes to the bar every morning to get pissed on gin and chat with the remarkably patient and kind barkeep (Niels Arestrup). She pops pills and only goes out to visit the local grocer. They don’t talk. They’ve very angry with each other. He wants her to talk, but she won’t budge. The only thing that brings them together is a peephole/drainpipe that looks into the adjacent room where a newlywed couple (Mevil Poupaud and Mélanie Laurent) are staying. They watch the couple in moments both intimate and mundane from the other side of the wall, remembering the love they once had. But their voyeurism also plants further seeds of jealously between Roland and Vanessa.

With her fourth directorial effort, Angelina Jolie Pitt (as she’s officially credited here, also as the screenwriter) has delivered her most assured work to date. It’s a shame that it’s bound to be misunderstood, instead conflating her own sometimes polarizing off-screen personality into a judgment against the film—something that gets compounded by casting herself opposite her husband in such a picaresque, European location. By the Sea ranks leagues higher than the unsubtle awards-bait seriousness of Unbroken or In the Land of Blood and Honey. In fact, subtlety proves more her speed than bombast and grandstanding. It’s a film about little moments and long pauses. It’s a successful attempt to make a slow burning adult marital drama full of moral and emotional ambiguity.

It’s a film from a bygone era, and Jolie has certainly taken lessons from the best filmmakers possible without ripping them off outright. It’s a very easy film to screw up. It requires a light touch and emotional dexterity. Too far in one direction it becomes a melodrama. Too far in the other and it becomes a 132-minute slog. Jolie adopts a slowly contemplative tone without being overly romantic or ponderously sombre. She can employ humour when necessary, and she keeps sometimes unnecessary stylistic flourishes to a minimum. It’s never explosive, exploitative or distancing. The actors are beautifully allowed to explore their characters without spelling out their aims to the audience. It reaches an emotional sweet spot.

Combined with the obvious chemistry that she displays with her choice of leading man, this lends By the Sea an achingly realistic feeling. The audience is never sure if they actually want Roland and Vanessa to stay together, but they do know that until proven otherwise, both of them are basically good, deeply flawed people who have forgotten how to love themselves more than they’ve forgotten how to be intimate with one another. In a sense, it’s a film about recovery and just how taxing that can be on people with a certain amount of closeness.

Sure, it would be easy to look at the people involved and say that it “looks like a perfume advert” (although, her visual eye is so great she could make a killer commercial) or that it’s a “vanity project,” but it’s a lot less vainglorious than her previous efforts behind the camera. By the Sea is controlled, but relaxed filmmaking made by someone who isn’t trying to win converts, affections or accolades. I haven’t been the biggest fan of Jolie as a filmmaker up to now, but I’m actively hoping she makes more films like this instead of the one’s she produced in the past.