It is the celebrity couple’s greatest temptation, and its least advisable risk: starring in a movie together. Borne of Golden Age relationships on and off the screen—Humphrey and Lauren! Richard and Elizabeth!—the Hollywood couple vanity project has been a very bad idea for a very long time. We need not summon titles like Gigli and Shanghai Surprise to explain what might go wrong. An earlier era of tight Hollywood press control and studio narratives has given way to our freewheeling tabloid culture, and now no high-profile couple should expect to work together unscathed. Overstimulated audiences want these movies to fail, and they usually do. When the marquee couple inevitably splits, their sad movies become funereal monuments to a pop-culture moment past—objects of ridicule and grim curiosity.
When it sauntered into theaters last fall, By the Sea looked to be a doozy of the genre. Angelina Jolie’s third feature film as director stars Angelina Jolie and her husband, Brad Pitt, in a story about a deeply unhappy couple living out some photogenic grief in the South of France in the 1970s. That is the entire plot. The film earned plenty of ridicule but also some charmed bemusement. Was Jolie really riffing on Antonioni? Was this the most naked she’s even been? Was it all a “132-minute perfume ad”? Can that big reveal at the end really be what this movie is about??
It was one of the year’s great curiosities, a sun- and booze-soaked travelogue of misery seen by few but secretly admired by … me, at least. Not quite a year later, it now looks like a prophetic text. The anointed couple is, you’ve surely heard, headed for divorce. And they’d just given us a movie in which they spend more than two hours scowling and snarling at each other with gusto. It may be a critical sin to drag TMZ into a movie review, but our subjects haven’t left us much choice.
Pitt and Jolie’s story always played out in the movies, in a way. Mr. and Mrs. Smith, their his-and-hers spy movie shot while Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston, is thought to have sparked their 12-year relationship. By the Sea is something else entirely—Jolie and Pitt may share the screen with some ease, but they spend most of the movie looking past each other with glassy, haunted eyes. She is Vanessa, a former dancer stricken with unspoken sorrow. He is Roland, a would-be writer who spends most days drinking with the hotel bartender. In early scenes, she is fabulously dressed and largely wordless; he mumbles and looks concerned. When they do speak, Jolie, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps it … basic:
Roland: You should go for a walk or something today. It might be good for you.
Vanessa: Don’t have a drink today. Might be good for you.
Roland: We could be happy, you know. You resist happiness.
From there, Gabriel Yared’s score whines, the camera sweeps over pristine sea views, and the pair forges a friendship with a newlywed French couple that is quite clearly not going to end well. (To add another layer to the meta sheen, Jolie bragged in press interviews that the film was shot during her “honeymoon” with Pitt, shortly after they were married in 2014.) Unlike most movies devoted to couples no one is brave enough to say no to, By the Sea is far from a testament to their screen chemistry or their picture-book lives; it’s a chamber piece full of marital despair and ominous walks a little too close to seaside cliffs. This may be a vanity project, but it’s a peculiar kind of vanity likely to make you uneasy, even before this week’s news.
Although Pitt does his part to play a stunted cliché, the man forever unsure of how to unravel his wife’s complexities, this is very much Jolie’s show—she cooked up the so-called plot, and she occupies the most screen time. In the movie’s most bizarre sequence, after Vanessa and Roland begin a decidedly wayward reconciliation, the couple gets up to dance at an elegant French restaurant. Without warning, Vanessa slips into a kind of trance, closing her eyes and flipping her hair wildly; Jolie then inverts the shot so we see the action from mirrors lining the restaurant’s ceiling, a dozen fragmented reflections of her losing her mind. It is a bizarrely pregnant image, not least of all because it’s intercut with gestational sounds and imagery that’s a clue to By the Sea’s nominal mystery. The shot is so distinct from every other in the movie, and so oddly climactic, that it’s the movie’s clearest invitation to think about what this impossibly famous woman is really trying to tell us.
This is a dumb game, I realize. But it is a time-honored ritual many will now be observing. (Within a couple hours of the news on Tuesday, there were already short-lived reports that the movie was back-ordered on Amazon.) If you’re just coming to By the Sea, line up some good French wine and prepare your speculative gasps for every time the central couple exchanges a hateful glance.