The Rise and Fall of Brangelina, The Last Great Movie Star Couple

Stephan Cho - December 2, 2016

There’s a specter hanging over Allied, the new romantic spy thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. On September 20, TMZ reported that Angelina Jolie had filed for divorce with Pitt, her partner of over ten years. This marked the abrupt end to one of the most scrutinized and high-profile relationships in Hollywood history. Rumors soon followed of an affair between Pitt and his married Allied co-star Cotillard, with many drawing parallels between the new film and the 2005 romantic spy comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the project that first brought Jolie and Pitt together. Pitt has kept a relatively low profile since the divorce announcement and Cotillard has repeatedly dismissed the allegations of infidelity, but the tabloid drama has become a significant part of the film’s promotional strategy. Paramount, the studio behind Allied, released a new trailer for the film on Twitter on September 20, just hours after the divorce went public.

It’s not always fair to project an actor’s personal life into their work. But over their ten year relationship, Jolie and Pitt have strategically weaponized their joint public personas through their films. Their only two onscreen collaborations are almost inseparable from this context:Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the 2005 film that reportedly brought the couple known as Brangelina together, and By the Sea, the Jolie-directed 2015 film that predicted their demise. Allied, arriving so soon after the couple’s divorce announcement, is also best understood within this context.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith introduces the couple as John (Pitt) and Jane Smith (Jolie), a seemingly ordinary suburban couple who turn to marriage counseling to mend their passionless relationship. But these people are much more than what they appear to be on the surface: both are highly-skilled contract killers at the top of their game, working for rival firms. John and Jane’s handlers give them the assignment of killing the other, which would effectively eliminate the threat they pose to one another. But rather than lead to mutual destruction, this revelation only leads the Smiths to come even closer, as the couple fights to protect their newly reignited relationship against the will of their handlers. When the Smiths return to the marriage counselor at the end of the film, they gush about their passionate sex life.

The film documents the beginning of the Brangelina relationship — one so passionate and explosive that it came to destroy a marriage in real life. Pitt, then married to Friends star Jennifer Aniston, reportedly met and began an affair with Jolie on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2004. Pitt and Aniston first announced their divorce in January 2005, but public attention on the affair exploded during the promotional cycle for Mr. and Mrs. Smith later that year. Jolie and Pitt never confirmed their relationship throughout the buildup to the film’s release, but tabloids and celebrity gossip insiders obsessively tracked every morsel of the couple’s increasingly flirtatious body language during the press cycle.

Like their characters inMr. and Mrs. Smith, the fiery start of the Brangelina relationship could have effectively ruined both of their careers. Pitt could have been vilified in the press for cheating on his wife, and Jolie was particularly vulnerable to being painted as a homewrecker. But over the years, the salacious start of Jolie and Pitt’s relationship made way to a new, more mature public image for the couple, and especially for Jolie. Jolie became an advocate for refugee rights in the United Nations, and quietly raised a family including six children--both biological and adopted--under the joint Jolie-Pitt name. Jolie also made her directorial debut in 2007 with A Place in Time, and began taking more acting roles in family-friendly films like Kung Fu Panda in 2008 and Maleficent in 2013 rather than the action parts she was known for. But no matter how much their public personas evolved, tabloids never let the couple forget how they came to be.

By the Sea, the 2015 film credited to writer, producer and director Angelina Jolie-Pitt that marks the onscreen reunion of Brangelina, is more fascinating as a document of Jolie’s carefully constructed public persona than as a film by itself.

By the Sea explores a weekend in the life of Roland (Pitt) and Vanessa (Jolie-Pitt), a beautiful but miserable couple who flee to holiday in Malta, as a last ditch effort to solve their dissolving marriage. In their glamorous but fading Malta hotel, Roland and Vanessa fight, drink too much, deal with existential crises, peek at the younger, happier couple having sex in the room next to them, and act out other European arthouse cliches.

Vaguely inspired by arthouse cinema, By the Sea is at least a pleasant visual experience. The lush cinematography and compelling setting help director Angelina Jolie-Pitt make a serious play at her emerging career as a director. But the nods to Michelangelo Antonioni are too obvious, and the tone is overbearingly dour without enough substance to back it up. By the Sea takes itself a bit too seriously for entertainment, but it’s fun to try and parse out what exactly Jolie-Pitt was trying to say as a public figure, however muddled her filmmaking might be.

Tabloids have long predicted the fall of Jolie and Pitt’s relationship, despite their relative silence on the matter. On the day Jolie announced her divorce from Pitt, Jezebel columnist Bobby Finger compiled every tabloid cover declaring the end of their relationship, dating as far back as November 2007. By the Sea, as a result, marks the first time Jolie-Pitt has commented on the speculation. Jolie-Pitt leaves many possible threads in the film for tabloids to project onto her real world relationship: Roland's alcoholism and possible cheating, Vanessa's ‘frigidity’ and inability to conceive children, or simply, just two people growing tired of one another. It's easy to see these as clear, direct expressions of her thoughts on the relationship, especially in a post-Brangelina world. But these might be traps set to split and distract the celebrity gossip machine; Jolie-Pitt, ultimately, doesn't reveal too much about what's going on in her relationship even in its last year.

Allied is a fascinating film in the context of the Jolie-Pitt relationship, though it portends a dark fate for the children who have come out of it. As with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pitt again plays a trained assassin tasked with killing his wife, this time French actress Marion Cotillard.

In the height of World War II, Canadian-born Max (Pitt) and French Resistance fighter Marianne (Cotillard) join together to defeat the Nazi German ambassador to France. They soon fall in love and move to London, where they get married and have a child by the end of Allied’s first act. Things seem perfect for the beautiful couple, but as a general warns him, “marriages made in the front never last.” Allied proceeds to pit Max and Marianne against each other as Max’s handlers begin to suspect that Marianne may be a double agent for the Germans. Ultimately, Max decides to try and clear his wife's name, but his loyalty threatens to put both him and his daughter at risk.

If there's any truth to the allegations of infidelity surrounding Allied, there's little proof of it on screen. The film’s awkward pacing leaves little time for Pitt and Cotillard to build any chemistry. Their characters get married, have a child, and move to London in less than five minutes at the end of the first act. The scene where Marianne gives birth to Max’s child is almost comically dramatic; Marianne goes into labor while running away from a burning hospital, as fighter jets fly over them. When the big twist about Marianne’s potential allegiance with the Nazi Germans arrives, there's not enough character development for the revelation to have much impact. For a film with such clear plot ties toMr. and Mrs. Smith and coming in the real world context of the Brangelina divorce, there's little dramatic weight to the central relationship in Allied. It's a shrug of an ending to Brangelina, our last great movie star couple.

It seems a bit old-fashioned to turn to a film like Allied for the salacious details of the Brangelina divorce, but Pitt and Jolie are part of an earlier Hollywood era in that way. They are perhaps two of the very last holdouts to the 24-hour paparazzi culture that is so central to modern movie stardom. For all of the speculation surrounding Pitt and Jolie’s relationship in the tabloids, their paparazzi presence has been surprisingly limited. It’s hard to imagine Pitt, for example, going through the very public “mid-life crisis” that Ben Affleck seemed to be going through in a series of candid shots earlier this year following his divorce with Jennifer Garner.

Pitt and Jolie, meanwhile, have been a bit more elusive outside of their films. Like the great movie stars of the past, their outsized public lives best suited for the scale of the big screen. Allied, for better or for worse, marks the end of possibly the last couple capable of transcending to that level.

Stephan Cho

Stephan Cho is a senior and the editor-in-chief of The Moviegoer. His interests include pop culture criticism, creative writing, and music production.