Malcolm and Marie have a relationship that feels nothing short of toxic as evidenced by the first interactions we see of them in Sam Levinson‘s new drama film Malcolm & Marie on Netflix. Levinson has not shied from taking his shot at exploring heavy subjects thus far in his career. Euphoria, Levinson’s widely acclaimed HBO show, ventures through the trauma-filled lives of Gen Z teenagers led by Emmy Award winner Zendaya. His 2018 film Assassination Nation directly discusses topics such as abuse, drug use, racism, murder, torture, sexism, and masculinity. He has opinions on the state of the world, and filmmaking is his artistic method of sharing those with the rest of us.

For this project, he workshopped with Zendaya to create a film during the COVID-19 pandemic, starting with the idea of learning what happens when a filmmaker forgets to thank their partner at a premiere party, which Levinson did himself when premiering Assassination Nation. This film asks what happens when the lines between romantic partnership and artistic collaboration blur and a new conflict between partners surfaces as soon as the last one seemingly fades.

Malcolm (John David WashingtonTenet), the character we cannot help but figure comes directly from Levinson’s own perception of film, allowing Washington to sink into a loud, abusive role that many actors might pay to play. He unleashes his anger and an inability to stop talking on Marie (Zendaya) who just takes it all. Malcolm is an abrasive man with monologues through which Washington storms.

Marie fights back, but her facial expressions showcase the toll this relationship has taken on her. She does, though, revel in her own aggressions against Malcolm in ways only she knows can hurt him. Zendaya’s performance is bathed in abundant light from cinematographer Marcell Rév who finds ways to photograph a gorgeous portrait of this woman dissatisfied with her partner. When she holds her power, Levinson’s direction allows her to control the scene. Levinson does the same for Washington as the power dynamics between the actors and their respective characters shift throughout the film.

Malcolm exemplifies self-absorption and lacks any type of self-awareness. Marie craves acceptance even when she knows the comments are laced with insincerity. Both characters spend the night cycling through emotions from rage to desire. At points, neither character is worth the audience’s sympathy. The imagery of this relationship confined to just a few rooms for the duration of the film focuses on the language that the actors, and the characters, use with each other. Levinson and Rév linger on the emotions captured in the actors’ bodies. The cuts give each actor his or her room to breathe even if one of them fittingly sucks all of the air out of the room in doing so.

Luckily for the viewer, the film is not anger and fighting for its entire runtime. Moments of levity exist in the space as well, and they are much warranted for the viewer to get the opportunity to breathe. The fact that this relationship has a night filled with this much belligerence and ever-flowing waves of blame and pardon proves they are either perfect for each other or they are one another’s worst nightmare. Is Marie with him because she loves him, or is she just intrigued by him to the point that she cannot turn away? Is Malcolm with her because he loves her, or is he just vapid beyond belief and needs someone there to listen to his tirades?

Washington delivers a frustratingly great performance as Malcolm to the point that an early exit would have been a godsend. For much of the film, Malcolm criticizes the ways in which film criticism exists today. However, his character thrives upon receiving rave reviews — his whole philosophy centers on being a contrarian and presenting reality in his art, but he’s a perfect example of a cruel narcissist. He cannot exist without validation but scoffs at the instances of validation he gets from those who do not say what he wants them to say. If the audience loves the film, he has won. If the critics love the film, they are only saying that because they “say what they think should be said.”

The blend of Washington and Zendaya’s acting, Levinson’s direction and screenplay, Rév’s transfixing black-and-white cinematography, and Labrinth‘s mosaic of a score create an image of a relationship in distress. Or maybe it is just a relationship in its rawest form — two people mesmerized by one another whether that be healthy or toxic. In this case, Malcolm and Marie lean more toward the latter. Zendaya lends an unmitigated sophistication to Marie as she reveals layer after layer of the character and releases the fire within her when she deems it necessary. Washington explodes onto the screen and he never lets you forget his presence. Each frame transports you into their relationship and inserts you between them during each confrontation. Do you remain a simple observer or do you choose a side? Malcolm chose a side for his own film, so did Levinson choose one in the creation of Malcolm & Marie? If he did, we can assume on our own which side he did choose. Such is the beauty of film, and film criticism as well — there is no absolute truth in a story or the writing. The art is and will always be subjective. Malcolm and Marie are a couple caught in a tumultuous moment in time, and Levinson captures that moment with this deft piece of art.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Malcolm & Marie’ is now streaming on Netflix

Review – ‘Malcolm & Marie’

Reviewed on Netflix, February 2, 2021. Rating: MA15+. Running time: 106 min.

PRODUCTION: A Netflix release of a Little Lamb, The Reasonable Bunch production. Producers: Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, Kevin Turen (p.g.a.), John David Washington, Zendaya. Executive producers: Scott Mescudi, Aaron L. Gilbert, Will Greenfield, Yariv Milchan, Michael Schaefer.

CREW: Director/screenplay: Sam Levinson. Cinematography: Marcell Rév. Editing: Julio C. Perez IV. Score: Labrinth.

CAST: John David Washington, Zendaya.

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