Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Maddeningness of Queen Angie

Why can’t we admire this avatar of female egotism?

Angelina Jolie does exactly what she likes, full stop. That’s why she has always been such a maddening, transfixing mixture of inspiration and affront to the rest of us. In her first few seconds in the spotlight, she rejected the demure-lady-superstar path, openly scoffing at so-called Hollywood glamour with tattoos and black leather, then marrying an oddball 20 years her senior and wearing a vial of his blood around her neck. After her divorce from Billy Bob Thornton, she wrote off the heteronormative fantasy of lifelong marriage and triumphantly prepared to raise her first child as a single mother, only to reverse course and dive right into her own custom-designed heteronormative fantasy with a very married Brad Pitt (refusing to either play the predatory vixen or apologize for the awkward timing, she flaunted her budding relationship by posing as Pitt’s wife in a photo shoot for W instead). Soon after, Jolie set about adopting and giving birth to a multiethnic army of babies with Pitt by her side, ushering them on what seemed like a never-ending world tour flanked by an army of Ray-Ban-clad handlers. She had a preemptive double mastectomy in 2013, then had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed this year, but used both operations as opportunities to inform the public about inherited cancer risks. Somehow, she emerged with even more swagger. Year after year, she’s greeted unexpected challenges with such calm and poise that it’s almost impossible to trust her. Could Jolie be an alien from another planet, sent to control our minds while harvesting a gorgeous rainbow of children from every nation, each one destined to rule a planet of his or her own in some distant galaxy?

As absurd as that sounds, science fiction may come closest to capturing Jolie’s status as a constantly reinvented symbol of unapologetic female egotism and power—power that’s wildly out of sync with the ploddingly flat, PR-savvy words Jolie uses to describe her experiences. In her latest power move, Jolie directs herself and her husband in By the Sea, a dark drama about a couple in the midst of a boozy marriage crisis that can’t help but conjure that W photo shoot from a decade ago. But this should come as no surprise. Jolie did what she liked ten years ago, and what she likes right now is directing.

may not set the world on fire. But as a clue to her otherwise mysterious inner life and her unfathomable marriage, the film is like a Rosetta stone. This is a woman who has it all but who always seems to want more. She doesn’t want to be just a world-famous actress, which, she hints, has always felt beneath her. She wants to be a movie director and also a guardian of human rights worldwide, one with a famous husband who is, in spite of his rigorous filming schedule, an equal co-­parenting partner and supportive best friend. She’s even taken on Pitt’s last name, in what seems less like a show of deference or wifely tradition than an imperial claim.

Thus do we find the new Ms. Jolie Pitt in a gorgeous seaside village in the Mediterranean, the ideal setting for a certain supernaturally attractive couple to glower and sulk in sparkling sunlight. The trailer for By the Sea delivers on this front: In scene after scene, Jolie and Pitt are glowering and sulking in the most photogenic and glamorous ways imaginable. A follow-up to Jolie’s second feature film, Unbroken, By the Sea presents an American writer and his wife experiencing marital upheaval—albeit that rare flavor of upheaval that looks just like a high-end perfume ad. The screenplay, which was written by Jolie, allows for shots of the actress sitting on a rumpled bed with big, salty tears dripping from her saucer eyes, or poutily smoking in tinted Sophia Loren glasses. In other shots, we find Pitt pouring himself a drink, trying to write in the bathtub, hitting his head in frustration over a blank page, and tossing back another drink instead. The couple is armed with terse lines that mimic the suspenseful vagaries of Mad Men teasers. Pitt: “We ever gonna talk about it?” Then: “You wanna hurt me?” Jolie: “You’re nothing!” In a slight departure from the stylings of Chanel No. 5, though, name-calling escalates to violence, then Harry Nilsson sings in his 1979 warble, “It’s the perfect way to end a perfect day.”

Dabbling in dark melodrama starring you and your perfect husband may be the perfect way to advance your perfect career and bask in the glory of your perfect life. Or, it may just be another day in the life of a “camp event,” as Scott Rudin uncharitably described Jolie in his hacked Sony emails. But that’s not how Jolie sees it. “I didn’t ever think I could direct,” Jolie told DuJour, speaking in her new, preferred tongue of self-effacing humility bordering on the surreal, “but I hope I’m able to have a career at it because I’m much happier.” She prefers directing to acting these days, she says. “I’ve never loved being in front of the camera.”