By the Sea: the marriage-in-crisis flop that couldn’t save Brad and Angelina

Life follows art: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie - Universal Pictures
Life follows art: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie - Universal Pictures

Seven years ago, the Pitts released a curious Euro arthouse movie called By the Sea, directed by Angelina Jolie Pitt (as she then was) and starring them both, about a couple with raging marital problems at a French seaside resort. Few saw it, and the critical reception was generally unkind – it was accused of being a vanity project, a wispy and vain white-people-problem movie by the superstar couple de nos jours.

Even as someone who liked the film more than most, I found it a struggle to level with the specific tragedy between this pair, Roland and Nessa, which comes down to problems conceiving. With all we knew about Brangelina’s family life, “couldn’t they adopt one from Africa?” was a hard question to suppress as you watched.

What a difference a year made. By the autumn of 2016, when Jolie filed for divorce, it felt like By the Sea had foretold the end, a kind of pre-emptive wake for a relationship at death’s door. Now we’re able to pinpoint the precise moment when the marriage went south – or rather, west. It was on a private jet from Nice to Los Angeles, on Sep 14, 2016, with their six children on board.

The details of this traumatic flight have come out in spurts, but it has taken a full-blown suit and countersuit – somewhat gallingly, over the Provençal winery they bought together in 2008 – for Jolie’s point-by-point account to emerge in court papers. During a heated argument, Pitt, the papers allege, pulled Jolie into the plane’s bathroom and shook her, punched the ceiling repeatedly, poured beer and red wine on his family, choked one child, and struck another. In a statement to CNN, a representative for Pitt called the latest allegations “completely untrue.”

An eyewitness report at the time claimed Pitt was already so drunk by the time of a refuelling stop in Minnesota Falls, that he drove around the tarmac in a fuel truck and relieved himself outside. The abuse then allegedly reached its peak on the homebound stretch, and Pitt and Jolie went to separate locations after landing.

Six days later, the divorce papers were served. Six years later, the details haven’t been finalised: thanks to the various custody battles and a price tag of $250m on Jolie’s latest suit, they’re still technically married.

On every front, it’s a more melodramatic saga than one I’m hazily struggling to recall in By the Sea, with its languorous debt to Antonioni’s La Notte. Shot in Malta and the island of Gozo, it was set at a French coastal resort in the 1960s, tying it, geographically at least, with the couple’s real-life property empire.

Future students of Hollywood power couples will undoubtedly go back to it searching for clues, just as the rows and ennui of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were like tea leaves for an earlier generation’s stellar marriage, between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

It’s telling that neither star made much of an effort to promote their film, which tanked commercially – it cost $10 million and made about a third of that worldwide. Rewind to the vehicle that brought them together, 2005’s whoppingly successful assassin caper Mr and Mrs Smith, and the contrast couldn’t be more extreme. Everyone wanted to watch them hook up, back then. By the Sea barely even succeeded in attracting the vulture-ish, rubber-necking attention you’d expect from a slowed-down car crash.

Happier times: Pitt and Jolie while filming Mr and Mrs Smith
Happier times: Pitt and Jolie while filming Mr and Mrs Smith

There’s a line of dialogue in it, after 40 minutes of lounging and elegant despair have already elapsed, which juts out like a sharp rock at high tide. Pitt’s Roland, a failed novelist, has been drinking to excess at the local café, while his chronically depressed wife just languishes in their hotel room.

He staggers in and fumbles for her in the bed: Jolie makes noises of disgust, and tries to wash his taste off using the glass of white wine by her bedside. He won’t let up, so she kicks him to his side of the bed, pummels him on the back, and storms out onto the balcony.

The camera lingers on Pitt, face down and spread-eagled in the moonlight. Before it cuts, we hear him mumble the words “We aren’t going to make it” into his pillow.

Tempting as it might be to consider this a borderline out-take, the film was shot a full two years before that epic mid-flight ruckus. There were, at least, reports of real trouble on the set between them, a tangible blurring of art-life boundaries. Pitt’s Roland is a serious alcoholic; Pitt revealed in 2020 that he had struggled with alcohol, and was now sober.

If By the Sea was Jolie’s attempt at some kind of therapy session, it clearly backfired. And if hitting the bottle was Pitt’s idea of getting into character, it was Method acting with more than a hint of madness.

The raging dissatisfaction of Roland and Nessa gives them roving eyes: especially her, in fact, when she finds a peephole in their room and starts watching the gorgeous couple next door – young newlyweds, trying for a child, who can’t keep their hands off each other.

By the Sea was directed by Jolie - Universal Pictures
By the Sea was directed by Jolie - Universal Pictures

Adultery with Melvil Poupaud’s character drives Roland and Nessa to the brink of separation, but maybe advances them towards a new understanding by the end. The film doesn’t conclude with them resolving all their troubles, but there’s a series of teary heart-to-hearts, and a cautious sense of optimism as they drive away – they may have turned a corner.

This is the fantasy. Because of the real-life sequel, it feels like a roseate pipe-dream watching it again. Talk turned quickly at the time to Brad’s World War II drama Allied – another flop – because of supposedly electric chemistry with his co-star Marion Cotillard, who was said to be horrified at the implication she might have been a third party in the split.

On screen, Jolie had them dallying with infidelity à la Française, but giving herself and Pitt, whose production company is behind the upcoming MeToo film She Said, the last-ditch benefit of the doubt. In real life, their days were getting numbered, and this vehicle didn’t exorcise underlying demons so much as drag them out into the peachy Mediterranean light for all to see.

By the Sea is available to watch on Amazon Prime