There are at least four ways to appraise Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie:
- as a stage play
- a minimalist work on colouring
- as a controversial piece of meta-criticism on criticism
All approaches are, to some extent, academic jargon, and, at worst, faux political statements on race and filmmaking’s perpetual director-critic power tussle. All approaches are reductive and by effect, will draw attention away from the essence of this film: The psychoanalysis of a crumbling toxic relationship. However, to attain critical authenticity, all roads and manner of film readership this movie demands must be respected. So, we begin.
as a stage play:
Malcolm & Marie is a two-man film about a rising director (Malcolm) and his lover (Marie) who have just returned from the premiere of the director’s debut movie. Upon their return from the premiere, the night slowly devolves into a painful assessment of their five-year-old relationship and their roles within it.
Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are co-dependent, mentally unstable partners in a toxic relationship. The first twenty minutes build the plot slowly, attentively, in a manner that can only be catered for by dexterous actors. The brooding Zendaya cooking mac and cheese in the opening scene, the overzealous David Washington dancing to James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York”, the placid discontent on Zendaya’s face, the impending tension in the room. The movie prances on with the lovers’ arguments which vary from eloquence to pedestrian, all the while demanding from the actors and the director.
Watch Zendaya break, her lower lip quivering, see the happiness slowly wash away from her face at various times, look at her fiddle with her hands when she is in deep thought, and pay attention to her brilliant “Thank You” monologue in the penultimate scene. And David Washington (son of Denzel Washington) carries his role with zest. He has energy to expend, exploding at various times and catching his breath, then exploding again, until at the end of the movie when Zendaya delivers her monologue, he is spent emotionally and physically. He looks away from her and Zendaya chastises him, “look at me”. There are some scenes where the energy level drops, but they are far from one another, and like a stage play, both players realise they have only each other, and they carry each other. It is not a masterpiece display of acting, but this movie has great actors who put up extraordinary performances.
Small cast movies are entirely reliant on the dexterity of actors and the blockings of the director, demands that are stage-esque. For this, the movie thrives on the brilliance of its actors. Zendaya shines as a ticking-bomb recovering drug-addict muse to John David Washington’s megalomaniac, maverick director. In their secluded home, they huff and puff through the rooms, delivering monologues of discontent to each other, entirely reliant on the movements and give-and-takes reminiscent of the theatre. The consistency of pan and dolly shots, the overarching landscape of the film, the careful placement of the characters against the backdrop, the frequent spontaneity of the acting, the servitude of filmmaking techniques to the body and nuance of the actors: Zendaya and David Washington shine because this is very much a stage play transposed to film. Read it as this without restraint.
a minimalist work on colouring:
The paucity of colour strikes the viewer from the first scene of the movie. A stark black and white scene waiting for subjects to grace it. Black and White or B&W is a stylistic choice in this age of filmmaking. It is usually employed in movies where movement, atmosphere, and characters are more important than pictures or landscape. The absence of colours reduces the information the viewer has to process in the scene, limiting the viewer’s focus to the movements on screen. The objects on screen are stark and simple, creating suspicion in the viewer. Life shouldn’t be so lacking in colour except something unnatural is afoot.
The B&W usage in the film draws attention away from the surrounding (which itself is minimalist) to the actors. Black and White is the colour choice of mental asylums and most hospitals. It sets the tone for the film protagonists— mentally ill lovers in a secluded location. In a colourless world as this, only moving images matter. The lack of vivid colours also gives the director room to create some wonderful shots.
Sam Levinson used music as beat changers in Malcolm & Marie. This makes sense in a two man cast movie set in a confined location. There has to be elements that signify that the film has moved from one significant beat to another or changed from a line of thought to another. Opening with James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York”, the movie holds the lover’s argument until William Bell’s “Forgot to be Your Lover” comes on. Afterwards, Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid of Him” plays as Marie confronts Malcolm that she alone can tell him he is an asshole. Nnamdi’s “Wasted” plays next. Finally, “Liberation” by Outkast ft. Cee-Lo closes the film. Music itself is as much an important element of storytelling in this movie as any other element. With each new song came a new focus of the plot. Listen to the beat change. All puns intended.
as a controversial piece of meta-criticism on criticism:
The further we proceed into the night, the more obvious the dysfunctional state of this relationship becomes. While Marie is afraid of confronting who she is without Malcolm, she is certain that Malcolm is just as damaged as her. Macolm claims he has been with numerous damaged people, opening up the fine critical riposte of what that says about his own state of mind.
Malcolm continuously disrespects the sacredness of mystery. He unravels and tears into Marie’s past, dissects her psychologically on the operating table of anger and resentment. All he wants, he claims, is for her to be happy for him on the most important night of his life. Marie’s needs are simpler. She wants him to acknowledge and thank her for all her support that has led to this night.
Malcolm & Marie is the portrait of a toxic, chaotic relationship. The give-and-take of verbal violence is typifying of the physical violence suffered in such relationships. Malcolm constantly digs deep into the past to hurt Marie and Marie calmly takes the verbal beating, broken and seemingly deflated, only to return with such clever analysis of the frailties of Malcolm’s logic that one can only marvel at the precision and eloquence of her arguments. Rinse and repeat until you have five years of verbal torture that has now climaxed into this premiere night.
One of the numerous beauties of this movie rests in its staunch refusal to make a general statement on relationships. It focuses on this relationship, presents its pros and cons, and reaches a denouement. Here it is in plain view: They arrive from the premiere and Marie demands to know why Malcolm never acknowledged her at the premiere and this becomes a questioning of the general state of their relationship, leading to insults and hatred and attempts at reconciliations and failures at this; leading to that utterly brilliant “Thank You” monologue by Zendaya, and finally, in bed, later, Malcolm genuinely apologises and says “Thank you”, which passably resolves the opening conflict of the movie. Movie ends with a beautiful shot. It is a simple night of fight in a relationship made peculiar by the horrific toxicity on display in the relationship.
However, this movie lacks genuine emotional resonance. When Marie breaks, we break, When Marie riles, we are exhausted by the fight, when Malcolm responds, we pay attention for new discoveries, when he calms, we expect an intellectual assessment of something, anything. It gets exhausting. But it doesn’t go beyond this. It is peculiar that the debutant director receives no calls from well-wishers upon the couple’s return home. Isn’t he liked at all? This movie lacks the emotional resonance love/hate relationship movies such as Marriage Story and Revolutionary Road have because of the abstract tangent Hollywood/critics arguments it goes out of its way to make. That peculiar, very out-of-place five minutes monologue of metacriticism on Hollywood critics and their simplistic approach to reviewing films of black directors is an exhausting, unneeded monologue, its unnecessariness is evident in how quiet Marie becomes while the rant plays out. How indifferently she brushes it off. As if the writer/director wants it to be noticed but doesn’t want much attention paid to it.
We can argue that this is a megalomaniac character in his element, but it feels far too much as the film director, Sam Levinson, speaking obnoxiously through an equally obnoxious director character. However, it should be doubtless that any review of this film that focuses or dilutes its criticism due to that single aspect of the film should not be given much attention for its politicizing of material. Is it not humorously ironic that we have now found that critics cannot take a little criticism? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians themselves? Read Malcolm & Marie in this manner as well. As an unneeded metacriticism on criticism.
- I do not believe this movie should be read as Levinson sought for it to be read. Cinema—art—should speak to every member of its audience in a similar yet different language unique to the individual. This was an intense, intriguing movie that commented on love and it succeeded at this task. Every side quest must be appraised as that—a side quest, and thus, disposable.
- The director set out to make a polemical movie and the political rave around this movie is retarding. Here is the missing context: Sam Levison is a white director, and he has now written and directed a movie about black artists in Hollywood and how their art is perceived through the lens of race. Also, the movie focuses on a black couple, the black woman being a drug addict who has negotiated her mental illness and her race within an unfair white system. Too many “blacks” in the control of a white director. This notion is a foolish one. While it is important and easier that some people tell certain stories, it is irrelevant who tells what story as long as the nuance and sensibilities needed to tell such story are available. A legitimate owner of a story without the required toolset to convince will ruin the story just as an illegitimate storyteller with skill. What is most important is that a story is told truthfully and with empathy. Has Sam Levinson done this? I am not sure. But I know he has done better than most so-called “authentic” political, trend-obsessed legitimate owners of said story.
Malcolm & Marie is available on Netflix.