Carola Long: Brangelina and a 21st-century myth

This couple fulfil the desire to see own lives played out in glossy form

In the minds of many gossip hounds, the next chapter of the Brangelina drama had already been written, and it was the finale. What a surprise then when the key players actually voiced their own parts and announced that they were beginning legal action against a newspaper which claimed they were planning to split. Their lawyer said the paper made "false and intrusive allegations" in reporting that the couple had agreed to separate and divide their hefty assets, and had made arrangements for the custody of their considerable brood.

But many celebrity-watchers are less likely to believe the two people at the heart of the story than the reports surrounding them. That's partly through precedents such as Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere's full-page advert in The Times, declaring the stability of their marriage, and Guy Ritchie and Madonna's strained smiles of togetherness at the premiere of RocknRolla. Both preceded divorce. It's also because the whole Jen, Brad and Ange saga fulfils so many classic narrative archetypes that it has the ring of authenticity. It's like a modern-day morality play, albeit a muddled, quasi-biblical Hollywood blockbuster version with better teeth and hair. Just imagine it directed by Mel Gibson.

Accordingly, Brad – whose love of sport and beer makes him an A-list everyman – succumbs to lust, in the form of siren Angelina. Along the way he performs some good deeds (charity donations) but the cliffhanger is whether he will achieve redemption by begging Jen to take him back. There is also a semiotic system at play deemed far more accurate than any leak in the press – or lawyer's statement. A long straggly beard paints a thousand words, and Pitt's seems to say, Garbo-like, "I want to be alone... in my man-cave." In the popular imagination he is punished for swapping marriage to America's sweetheart for some short-lived, hot lovin' with a leather-trousered temptress with airbag lips. Now the passion has cooled and he's stuck with a woman whose penchant for adoption made her the butt of Ricky Gervais's jokes at the Golden Globes.

Of course this is all utter conjecture, but that doesn't destroy the Brangelina myth. In fact the more neatly it fits into a fictional pattern, the more believable it becomes. As well as the age-old dichotomy of the good girl – sweet honey blonde Jennifer – and the bad girl– twice divorced, multiple-tattooed Angelina – there are more stereotypes at play, such as the pitiable forty year-old single, childless woman. Aniston, shoe-horned into this clichéd role, even sent up parallels between reality and fiction in a speech, quipping: "If anyone has a movie called Everlasting Love with an Adult Stable Man that would be great".

The Brangelina story not only has juicy rumours of rows and infidelity to keep us hooked but it also taps into a deeper curiosity about relationships. We want to see our own lives and dilemmas played out in glossy, abstract form, and the Jolie-Pitts are too rich and beautiful to be much more than allegorical symbols. We can sit back, relax and enjoy the salacious but instructive tales of their poor little rich lives without the burden of empathy.