By Tom Gliatto
Updated November 23, 2016 11:57 AM
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Merci, Madame Cotillard: The Oscar-winning actress bravely and/or gamely has agreed to become Brad Pitt’s first onscreen leading lady since his split from the one with the soaring cheekbones. She’s superb — the best thing — in director Robert Zemeckis’ Allied, an entertaining but ungainly spies-and-sex epic that tries to be both an old-school Hollywood romance, swanky and exotic, and a domestic espionage drama of a more conventionally crabbed intensity.

It’s all very Casablanca at the start — Morocco during World War II, in fact — with Pitt and Cotillard teaming up as Allied operatives. She’s Marianne Beauséjour, French. He’s Max Vatan, Canadian. Posing as a married couple with good Vichy credentials, they plan to murder a Nazi official. First, though, Marianne needs to coach Max in how to pretend he’s infatuated with her, in addition to coaching him to speak French with a correct Parisian accent. (Good idea: To an American, Max’s French sounds as if it were learned from his mother’s gramophone.) Marianne takes to calling Max “Quebecois” with growing, teasing affection (and, later, regret), even though he points out that he’s from Toronto. But “mon homme qui est originaire de l’Ontario” wouldn’t promise as much cinematic passion.

Soon enough, the infatuation doesn’t have to be faked. In the film’s best scene, M & M make love inside a car during a sandstorm: It’s like Lawrence of Arabia as a date movie, or maybe The English Patient, only vehicular instead of aerial. Zemeckis gives the scene its over-the-top erotic due while also preserving his customary cool, almost antiseptic precision. It’s so well done, you won’t ask yourself until much later how the couple and their car ever got shoveled out of that deepening dune.

You may even forget that Pitt and Cotillard don’t have much chemistry, although they come very close to sizzling in a subsequent, spectacular episode that has them on a Bonnie-and-Clyde rampage. Hot gunmetal never hurts.

Then things move on over into a morose British setting that could have come from a Graham Greene novel — the tone is sour and sunless, saturated with the gnawing, angry tension that comes from worrying whether intimate fidelity has been betrayed. Max, now back in London, still working in intelligence and married to Marianne, is informed by a superior with the coloring of a centipede that his new wife is suspected of being a German spy. If the suspicion is confirmed, Max is instructed, he must kill her himself.

Pitt spends the rest of the movie mostly looking stricken and uncomfortable, as if he’d eaten substandard tinned meat, and you mentally start taking note of other actors who could have been slotted in to provide the same mix of gravitas and testosterone: Clooney, DiCaprio, maybe Damon. But nonetheless Max musters himself and goes to great and ridiculous lengths to find out the truth.

Zemeckis, one of the great technicians of modern filmmaking, momentarily distracts us from Pitt and his small overhanging cloud of doom-and-drizzle with a scene of the London Blitz: The night sky is a towering blue curtain filled with sweeping lights and planes. It’s as dazzling as any space battle waged by the Millennium Falcon.

But Cotillard always remains the movie’s center: With her large eyes and delicate nervousness, she projects genuine mystery and an air of potential doubleness. If she felt like it, she could probably make you suspect Marianne of being a triple or quadruple agent, cutting deals with Japan or even Sweden, which was neutral. The film’s second best scene takes place, not at all coincidentally, in another car, its windows streaked by rain: There’s no Pitt this time, just a frightened Cotillard and a baby.

Allied might have been better as I Spy. (Nov. 23, R)