Jolie Pitt takes it a step further. Like a pointillist painting, By the Sea’s plot twist are dots with lines tracing back to her own timeline. The way Vanessa wallows in a sense of incompleteness, the way Jolie Pitt lingers upon her own reconstructed, bare breasts, traces back to her preventative double mastectomy in 2013, and the follow-up removal of her ovaries two years later. There’s no guessing; the a-ha moment comes when a book cover reveals Roland’s surname: Bertrand, the maiden name of Jolie Pitt’s late mother, who died from cancer and inspired the actress to go under the knife. Famous people resist such blatancy. By the Sea puts it all out there.
What Jolie Pitt can’t do is wrangle it all. The one thing the director and her husband aren’t aware of how mega-fame dilutes the riskiest intentions. This wasn’t a problem in their first team-up, 2005's Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In the assassin-vs.-assassin showdown, a steamy, illicit chemistry amplified action. Jolie Pitt wrote By the Sea to be raw, but really, it’s just serious. The pair can’t be themselves, so they play types. They’re unsure how normal people function in existential situations, so they gamble on 100 years of movies to do the talking. They don’t make every necessary sacrifice to express this harrowing, relatable life experience. They’re public figures with public reputations to uphold. Being enigmatic makes them bankable, often electric actors. You don’t play Maleficent when people know the real you.