Plenty of celebrity couples have played lovers onscreen. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor — who wed twice over the course of their famously turbulent, booze-soaked relationship — made 10 movies together, and infused what sure felt like genuine bile and tenderness into their roles as a husband and wife locked in co-dependent despair in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ben Affleck, for better and (mostly) for worse, turned a chunk of his résumé into a timeline of his personal history: There was Bounce with then-girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow in 2000, Gigli with then-fiancé Jennifer Lopez in 2003, and Daredevil with future wife Jennifer Garner that same year. Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams’ relationship was so bound up in 2004’s The Notebook for some people that their breakup made the whole swoony-kiss-in-the-rain seem like a lie.
Which it was — or, more precisely, it was acting, the profession all of these people are known for. It’s as irresistible to analyze these movies for insight into real-life romances as it is inconclusive, peering at chemistry and crackle (or a lack thereof), calculating timelines, trying to spot what might be real amid all the artifice that is filmmaking. And never has this been more true than with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the couple formerly known as Brangelina, whose intensely scrutinized pairing just came to an intensely scrutinized end. Theirs has been one of Hollywood’s most high-profile relationships and one of its most painstakingly managed PR campaigns, its participants and their six children seemingly floating through the world in a cultivated bubble of domesticity at once unimaginably luxe and deeply, earnestly engaged. And yet it’s a relationship bookended by two lavish cinematic fantasies of unhappy marriage — the topic of the only two films Jolie and Pitt made together over the course of their 11-year relationship.
The first, 2005’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, wasn’t just an action comedy remake about two married assassins who’ve been keeping their professions secret from each other — it was the production during which Jolie and Pitt fell in love, despite Pitt being married at the time to Jennifer Aniston. It’s also a broad parody of traditional marital bliss, an institution incapable of containing its two leads. In the film, directed by Doug Liman, they play Jane and John Smith, who after six years together are miserable and in counseling, bickering over new curtains and the addition of peas to a frequent recipe. Every day, John and Jane go off to their respective jobs as hypercompetent killers for hire, and every night they come home to play their parts in a stifling spoof of old-fashioned household tranquility, doing what each thinks the other expects: John putters in his shed (where he keeps his weapons) and Jane pulls a pot roast out of the oven (where she keeps hers).
Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a literal battle of the sexes movie, but it’s also one about blowing up a traditionally conceived relationship and all its accoutrements — the minivans, the cardigans, the stainless steel fridge, the potluck at the neighbor’s place. It’s about two larger-than-life people — and Pitt and Jolie are luminously, ridiculously attractive together — wasting away in an arrangement that’s below them, hiding their light beneath various Pottery Barn fruit baskets. In the film’s defining scene, their secrets are out, and Jane and John destroy their tastefully appointed house while trying to kill each other, blasting through drywall with shotguns and shoving each other into couches and grandfather clocks.
As they lay their home to waste, they spark to life, Pitt grinning lazily, and Jolie showing the most evident enjoyment she’s ever put into a line: After John knocks Jane down with a “Come to daddy,” she smacks him upside the head with a vase, headbutts him, and kicks him into a display cabinet while answering, hair flying free, “Who’s your daddy now?” It’s an electric connection that ends with the two having inevitably wall-slamming sex amid the wreckage, but sultrier still is the postcoital scene in which they putter around the broken glass in the kitchen, fixing something to eat as “Lay Lady Lay” plays before they sit in the hallway half-dressed, comparing war wounds and past deceptions, shedding their respective pretenses to normalcy.
It’s like watching two superheroes unmask themselves — or rather, two stars of old-school splendor shrugging off such everyday problems as boredom and sexual staleness in favor of high-speed chases and epic shootouts. To watch Mr. & Mrs. Smith, which holds up a decade onward as a slick, halfway clever romp, is not to feel like you’re getting offered any accidental insight into Jolie and Pitt’s revealed-soon-after romance; it is to sense what it’s like for two people to be united in acknowledgment of their mutual magnificence. Even the movie agrees, they come across as deserving better than regular old human experiences — or at least deserving the chance to pretend that’s the case.
It took 10 years for Pitt and Jolie to reappear together onscreen in a movie, a decade during which Pitt nabbed multiple Oscar nominations and Jolie burnished her celebrity into something that went beyond her acting work, into activism and iconicity. When they did act together, it was in By the Sea, Jolie’s third feature as a director, and a film that’s in many ways the opposite of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. It’s a languid, ’70s-set art production, one that wears its seriousness up front and that is, in theory at least, all about commonplace relationship problems, albeit as filtered through a setting and actors of extravagant beauty. Here, Pitt and Jolie play Roland and Vanessa, Americans vacationing off the coast of France, another husband and wife gripped by deep unhappiness, this time of a decidedly un–shoot-’em-up variety. Every day, Roland heads off to the local café, ostensibly to write but in reality to drink, while Vanessa lounges like a sunbathing feline at the hotel, doing herself up and then dawdling aimlessly in the sun, eventually spying on the newlyweds (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) in the room next door.
By the Sea attracted derision it didn’t deserve — it was a fascinating if unbearably self-conscious act of peekaboo, teasing its relationship and its relevance to the reality of its leads without ever revealing anything. It’s a theoretical in which Jolie and Pitt, who’ve been two of the world’s most famous parents, playact how empty they believe a marriage might be like without children. That, it turns out, is the dark thing that’s been tearing their characters apart — Vanessa sobs “I’m barren!” at a climactic moment — which makes the movie feel even less telling and personal in light of the reasons being trotted out for the Jolie-Pitt divorce, a decision made, according to Jolie’s lawyer, “for the health of the family.” While By the Sea was labeled by some as a vanity project, it’s the understanding Jolie has of her own appeal, as well as Pitt’s, that’s enduring about it. They have never looked better than in this movie, especially in the sequence in which they dress up to go out for the night, the beehived Vanessa applying lipstick around a cigarette, Roland slicking back his hair and slapping on cologne.
If the post-sex scene in Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a glimpse of Jolie and Pitt’s unpracticed charisma, the pre-dinner moment in By the Sea is its appropriate other side, in which the two armor themselves up to impress with all the wattage they have available to them. And they do, arriving at the café like demigods descending from Olympus to briefly canoodle over drinks, not a touch of vulnerability to them. If, in their two screen pairings, Pitt and Jolie offered nothing personal, no sense of rawness or realness in this work from the start and from near the end of their time as a couple, what can be said without doubt is this: They were very good at being movie stars together.