Filmed last summer in the middle of a pandemic, shot in one location and featuring just two actors, Sam Levinson manages to utilise his surroundings and restrictions well enough to shoot Malcolm & Marie. However, it’s the actors John David Washington (BlacKKKlansman, Tenet) and Zendaya (Levinson’s own tv series Euphoria) as Malcolm and Marie that elevate this film up from just average to just above average.
Pretentious filmmaker Malcolm has won a big award for his new film and is in majorly high spirits when he and his girlfriend Marie return home to their swish modern house at 1am. Malcolm wants to celebrate, keep drinking, and rant about how great his film is as he waits for the reviews to roll in. Marie, on the other hand, moodily makes him mac & cheese and smokes cigarettes before revealing why she’s not celebrating with him – he didn’t thank her in his speech, despite the film being partially based on her life as a young drug addict. This leads to a 1 hour and 45 minute long up and down argument where Marie complains, Malcolm argues, they make up, until Marie complains again, Malcolm argues again, then they make up again; a cycle repeated an ungodly amount of times.
Their complaints and arguments are awful, spiteful, repetitive, and – worst of all – they are monologues. What human talks in monologues, especially as a form of argument? Levinson has aimed for a naturalistic tone and failed, as the acts of realism are made redundant by the equally as unrealistic acts. They make repetitive drawn-out points, echoing real arguments between couples, but in the form of paragraphs and artistic monologues that make you quickly fade out of the conversation, only to tune back in later to hear them repeating themselves. This doesn’t make for interesting drama, especially as Malcolm comes across as much more cruel and vindictive in his hateful complaints to Marie about her, when she in turn seems to be just angry that Malcolm took her previous suffering and turned it into a dramatized fiction where she is not even thanked. Turns out Malcolm met Marie when she was deep into her addiction, and as she points out this was just ‘good material’ for him; seems a little manipulative on his part, really.
They say they love each other but never explain why, despite having plenty of reasons why they hate each other. Strange, as the dialogue in the rest of the film is exposition-heavy; within the first six minutes, the entire events leading up to the beginning of the film have been firmly spelled-out by Malcolm. Heavy exposition through dialogue is often unfavourable, as it comes across as lazy filmmaking. Where’s the nuance and implication of anything? Not to dismiss dialogue heavy films as valid, because they are, but only when done right, which this isn’t.
One of Malcolm’s points of fury is a white female film critic who reviews his new film after previously dissing his last one, alluding to him now being the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins. Malcolm complains about how white people see a film by a black director, with black characters, and immediately construe it as political instead of just a film – ‘cinema doesn’t need a message’, as Malcolm states; a valid response. However, Levinson (a white man) has previously had a bad review of his film Assassination Nation (2018) by a white female critic, and has harboured bad feelings about this ever since. Levinson (a white man!) has decided to bitch and moan about this review through the mouthpiece of his character – a black man, who complains about white critics, in particular the white female critic who references his male gaze in the film, something Levinson’s previous film was criticised for. It’s embarrassing to cover up your own qualms under this type of pretence, to siphon your own issues through the lens of a black person.
Malcolm’s monologues about Hollywood and film critiques just end up sounding like the voice of the director and not the character, like Levinson got carried away with his own furious opinion when writing the script and just wanted to berate a female critic but not get called out for it, so shoddily covered it up. Plus, Malcolm doesn’t like being called out for his use of the male gaze when he himself stays fully dressed the entire film, unlike Marie who decides to undress and stretch out half naked to listen to her partner’s rants about the ‘bitch’ critic. Marie does point out to Malcolm later that she agrees with the critic about the male gaze issue, but just because you make your character verbally say something doesn’t mean your own lens is showing the same point.
The performances of Washington and Zendaya are great, that is obvious, as is the lovely shot composition and camera work. The choice to shoot in black and white is a choice of artistic pretentiousness, matching that of the issues between the two characters (most often though it is Malcolm who is the pretentious one, who won’t pay attention to Marie’s real issues with how she’s treated in the relationship, instead focusing on one thing such as his film being called ‘mediocre’). He constantly references Citizen Kane and all these filmmakers and how people just don’t get them, making him a completely unlikeable character and an obvious voice for Levinson himself. He uses a voice that isn’t his to echo his own opinions and bitter resentments. The points Levinson makes about white critics of black films is actually an important and discerning one. Had that been the undercurrent of Malcolm & Marie, or even if that had been stripped back so the film just explores the highs and lows of a relationship, this could’ve been a great film. Unfortunately, Levinson steps on his own toes and brings down his film in quite a questionable way.