Jolie’s directing debut is uneasy mix of war & romance

SAY THIS for Angelina Jolie's foray into directing - she's clearly not in it for the money.

Her debut, "The Land of Blood and Honey," is a grisly, inscrutable psychosexual art film set amid the brutal chaos of the strife in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

I'd be surprised if it finds an audience much bigger than the voting body of the Golden Globes, which gave Jolie a best foreign-language film director nomination a few weeks ago.

"Blood and Honey" (in Turkish, the words combine to form "balkan") begins in the final minutes before the country is ripped apart by the war of ethnic cleansing that set Serb against Muslim. In the calm before a bloody storm, Serb policeman Danijel (Goran Kostic) is in a nightclub maneuvering to dance with Aja (Zana Marjanovic), a beautiful Muslim woman. They embrace and the club is ripped apart by a bomb.

A war of cleansing, atrocity and extermination has begun and so, it seems, has a star-crossed love story. Danijel is promoted to commander of a women's detention camp, and into his prison walks Aja. Of all the gin joints . . . 

He "protects" her by making her his private consort, and while she appears to agree to this arrangement (it beats being raped nightly by drunken enlisted men), we're never sure where the parties stand, and their fraught relationship becomes the subject of Jolie's strange movie.

The commander and his prisoner have beneath them a foundation of genuine feeling. Their attraction, after all, predates the war. That war, however, has warped everything around them and twisted their budding romance. Everything is distorted by the massive imbalance in power that defines them now. In Danijel, every act of tenderness is wrapped in an implied threat.

What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with the war raging around them? Beats me. Jolie wrote the script and has a few scant lines defining the Serb/Muslim conflict in very broad strokes.

The ghastly particulars of ethnic cleansing, on the other hand, are on full display. Every 10 minutes or so, another woman is defiled, a baby killed or a pedestrian assassinated by a roving Serb convoy. (The movie has drawn complaints from Serbian groups and Jolie moved some on-location shooting to Hungary).

Then it's back to the Danijel and Aja and their weird psych-ops love affair, a mix of candid sex, guilt, suspicion and shame.

It doesn't come together for Jolie here, the way it did in "City of Life and Death," a possible source of inspiration.

Another model for the "Blood and Honey" may have been Polanski's "The Pianist," which touched on the way the war reduces the cultured and civilized (Aja is a painter) to mere survivors and may have inspired her opening sequence.

And if you set the war aside, you see the ingredients for the kind of sex/power struggle that might have interested Almodovar.

Jolie is aiming high here, her influences are impeccable.

Her game, however, could use a little work.

In the Land of Blood and Honey

Directed by Angelina Jolie. With Milos Timotijevic, Branko Djuric, Alma Terzic, Jasna Beri, Goran Jevtic, Rade Serbedzija, Goran Kostic, Zana Marjanovic, Nikola Djuricko, Dolya Gavanski. Distributed by Film District.

Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for war violence and atrocities including rape, sexuality, nudity and language).