This is the fifth installment of our “Home Movies” column by Philippa Snow, about what we watch when no one’s watching.
Watched this week:
By the Sea (2015) | Interview (2007)
We knew their love affair was over then, of course; the biggest stars are usually private with their grief, but Angelina Jolie is in some way, I have always thought, unhinged. By the Sea is, in effect, a film about two people we would like to sleep with who are no longer much interested in sleeping with each other. It was written and directed by Jolie, who plays the wife, and it stars Brad Pitt, her then-husband, as the husband, making it a fascinating piece of celebrity gossip disguised as a ten-million-dollar movie. I ended up watching By the Sea this week because it felt like the right time for voyeurism, and because I seemed to recall an intriguing metaphor buried beneath its camp, Antonioni-lite exterior: a discovered peephole, through which Pitt and Jolie watched another younger, more erotically adventurous husband and wife, the same way we watched them when they were younger and more publicly demonstrative. It would be difficult to find a more appropriate image for the present, invested as so many of us are in the act of peering into others’ lives from the less interesting position of our own.
The plot is simple: a man and his supernatural-looking wife decide to take a trip to the French Riviera. There is ennui. There is shame. He drinks. She pops pills, and she drinks, too—a great deal, in that whittled-thin, wasted way that never fails to make the viewer crave a very dry martini. They once had an epic love, but this great love has been diminished, near-destroyed, by their respective career failures: he’s an author who can’t write, and she’s is a dancer who can’t dance. Pitt and Jolie let themselves appear undignified, him in a terrible mustache, and her with too much plastic surgery. Their courtship thrived on the grand gesture—the crackling sensuality of their onscreen chemistry, while Pitt was still married to Jennifer Aniston, in 2005’s Mr. and Mrs Smith; the shoot for W magazine in the month where they played house, fictional parents to five beautiful fictional children—making this extremely public declaration of the dissolution of their marriage less surprising than it might have been coming from, say, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. That they made it on their honeymoon, after eight years spent in what looked like a contented partnership, did ring alarm bells: Who in Hollywood gets married after eight years of insisting that they don’t believe in marriage, unless something has turned rotten in the (mercifully no-fault) state of California?
By the Sea did not deserve its dreadful notices, in part because Jolie is not the unskilled screenwriter-director critics seem to think she is—the meta-image of herself she shares with us is at once familiar and unfamiliar, at odds with the slavering objectification of her early, extroverted years of stardom. It helps, too, that her performance is completely fascinating. In the movie, she is called “Vanessa Bertrand,” as if she’s a fashion brand you’ve never heard of, and she acts as though this is her first trip to our human planet. (“What’s that sound?” she asks her husband, curiously, hearing the waves from their hotel room. I can only emphasize: they’re By the Sea.) Walking down a sun-drenched hill, she holds her arms out at fey right angles as if she’s never walked before; she lies on furniture in ways that make it seem as if the chair’s a new invention, and her conversations ache with crazy melancholy. When she finally dances, it is a bizarre explosion, utterly unlike the work of a professional, but steeped in freaky ecstasy. Above all else, the general impression we get from Vanessa is that she is deeply, fundamentally misunderstood. It isn’t just the fact she doesn’t speak great French—it’s like she left her guidebook back at home on Jupiter. Earth girls are easy, but Vanessa is inscrutable, hard work.
If Brad Pitt has grown more human as he’s aged, Jolie has only grown less so: in the last years of their marriage, they began to look like different species, so that Brad, the goatish stoner, only enhanced her uncanniness, the way her face—always too lush and too outré, but in a fascinating way—did not look like an entirely normal face. She is all eyes, her cheekbones arching like the bones of a cathedral. She has, of course, that terrific, cushioned mouth: where most lips are fraternal twins, the top and bottom halves of Jolie’s pout look unalike enough that they might as well be strangers. On the lower, there’s a line straight down the middle that may be a more sensual valley than most cleavages; in certain scenes, we see her Gauloise resting in it, this odd rivulet, as if this were its very purpose. “You’re a good woman,” Pitt tells her, as if talking her down from a window ledge. “Christ,” she says, rolling her huge eyes, “am I that dull?”
Bad girls are usually of more interest to tabloids than good women, especially if they’re bad girls who once looked like a famously sexed-up video game character, and especially especially if they are bad girls who have sex in limousines, or wear their husband’s blood in vials around their necks. “Movie stars are pretty much never allowed to be clever or ironic. Or deep,” the pseudonymous film critic Uncas Blythe wrote, in a favorable review of By the Sea entitled “Barbie and Ken Skip the Divorce.” “But beware of a holy whore, dudes!” Beware, indeed: if sexiness can be distracting in a way that is frustrating, obfuscating a woman’s interior life, it can also be an opportunity for dazzling prey, a lure that leads men to distraction. Interview, a 2007 remake of a film by the late Dutch director Theo van Gogh, is a taut two-hander documenting an interview between a “serious” journalist, Pierre Peders, and a commercial actress, Katya. Katya’s output is limited to soap operas and B-movies; she is blonde, and thin, and gorgeous, and Pierre thinks she is stupid, giving her the opportunity to take him for a ride. She lays her sex appeal out as if it’s a bear trap.
A series of improbable events leads to him following her to her New York loft to finish up his questioning, where they get drunk, fight horribly, make out and enact psychic warfare on each other. She informs him that she’s brilliant at crying: “I don’t know if it’s acting, it’s more like a trick.” The real trick of Interview is the fact Katya, who in her words is more famous for the people she has fucked than for her movies, is played by Sienna Miller, the bohemian screen goddess and mid-noughties tabloid staple best known for her broken marriage to Jude Law. Miller never quite succeeded in convincing the film-going public that she could be more than someone’s wife or girlfriend, a prolific vodka drinker and a wearer of coin belts—perhaps because she was too beautiful, too lively, too well-dressed. In Interview, she exercises her best quality: a wickedness, a jittery need to take the piss out of herself. Katya-Sienna knows that everybody thinks she is a floozy, and that she has made some awful, stupid films. What she banks on is her audience not knowing just how smart she is, how capable of dissembling in order to dismantle their perceptions when they least expect it. In her psychosexual struggle with Pierre, Katya clearly, almost effortlessly, wins, since who knows patronizing men and their predictable and sleazy mind games better than an actress?
One more meta element of Interview is the fact that the film is directed by Steve Buscemi, who also plays Pierre, and who stepped in after van Gogh was murdered in 2004. (The 2007 version of the movie was intended, like Haneke’s English-language remake of his Funny Games in the same year, to be a new interpretation by the original director for an international audience.) If Buscemi is not burdened with a great deal of attention from the tabloids, he is doubtless still familiar with the format of the promotional interview: he may have met a journalist who, like Pierre, believed himself to be above the format, celebrities somehow being seen as simultaneously the most and least important thing in media. It would be impossible to quantify exactly how many newspapers, magazines and website ads had been sold off the back of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s relationship, or their divorce. Sienna Miller, who once had the word “slut” spray-painted across her front door by a “fan,” had her phone hacked by a British newspaper in 2005. It should not come as a surprise that famous people, being subject to our scrutiny without consent most of the time, sometimes prefer to redirect the narrative, and to reveal their stories to us through the medium of fiction.
Seeing Interview just after watching By the Sea, it struck me that one of its storylines—a lie about the reason Katya had her breast implants removed—echoed a thing that really happened to Jolie in 2013: her preventative double-mastectomy, performed after she was revealed to have the BRCA cancer gene. I remember men online commenting as if this were some personal catastrophe, a loss on par with if she’d actually died. “I’m so sick of talking about this, I can’t even begin to tell you,” Katya spits, when Pierre asks why she has no tits. “It’s no different to me to putting on a costume, or wearing a wig.” By 2015, as Vanessa, Jolie had implants again, as if completing her iconic Angelina costume—as if to say: have them back, then, seeing as they’re all you want to talk about.
The year before Jolie made By the Sea, she appeared in Maleficent, a Disney movie in which, playing an evil fairy queen, she’d had her wings cut off by force. By the last act, she’d gained them back. Her face, augmented with prosthetics, looked like a frightening, extraterrestrial version of itself, bone-white and cubist. As far as an autobiographical film about Jolie’s life and body was concerned, this was the trial run. For the real thing, Angelina—the epitome of the cinematic “holy whore,” with her humanitarian work and her extraordinary, sexy bad-girl past—made her avatar, Vanessa, into something that would have seemed equally alien and eerie to her traditional fan base: a great beauty with no sexual appetite.