At this point in the seemingly never ending COVID-19 pandemic, it’s fair to say that we’re all sick of talking about it, but in this particular instance, the circumstances surrounding Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie are worth a mention. In what is sure to become great future film trivia, this project is the first Hollywood feature to have been written, financed and produced entirely within the times of the pandemic. Something for cinephiles to remember, but would the film itself be equally as memorable?
Malcolm & Marie is a relationship drama that essentially tells the real time story of a monumental argument between a couple. After Malcolm (John David Washington) fails to thank girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) in a speech at the premiere of his feature writing and directorial debut, the pair return to their rented accommodation and biting remarks turn into all out verbals knives as certain home truths are uncovered and uncomfortable opinions are shared.
From a technical standpoint, I think that Malcolm & Marie is really impressive. The film was made with a completely barebones team, only a handful of people on set, no costume department, no makeup professionals. Despite these constraints, the film is visually sumptuous and certainly has a magnetic quality to it. The choice of black and white 35mm film is a very shrewd one, as the beauty of what is captured is always going to hide any small flaws in that might have been more highlighted in full colour. For all intents and purposes, this does not look like a movie that was created with such a hefty list of obstacles.
All that being said, there is also a lot that I don’t particularly enjoy about Malcolm & Marie. There is a certain pleasure to be had in the voyeuristic nature of being a fly on the wall witness to such a fight, but that pleasure very soon gives way to exhaustion as the minutes tick by and the pace of things doesn’t really change. The film is an emotionally exhausting watch, but not in such a way that is leaves you feeling like you have gone through something worthwhile by the end of it. When you start to dig in to the actual roots of the themes this couple are arguing about, it becomes less and less about them and more and more about a list of hang ups that filmmaker Sam Levinson clearly has about the industry. Many of the monologues from Malcolm are tirades against all and any form of film criticism, and it almost feels like Levinson is trying to get ahead of anyone who takes exception to his work here. Well guess what, here I am, taking exception, and these portions of the picture feel particularly arrogant and conceited.
In my opinion, the films best asset is its two cast members. As Malcolm and Marie, John David Washington and Zendaya are wonderful, and that’s coming from a viewer who didn’t enjoy what they were saying half the time. After proving himself an action star in TENET, Washington has arguably had one of the highest profile twelve month periods out of anyone in the industry, and his performance as Malcolm is equally as stylish as what he did in Nolan’s 2020 blockbuster. He has an effortless charisma that permeates every scene, every line, and it is testament to the natural likability of the actor that a character being so viscerally mean can still be watchable.
Having never watched Euphoria, Malcolm & Marie marks the first really dramatic work I have seen from Zendaya (The Greatest Showman was a different kettle of fish!), and I have to say I am hugely, hugely impressed. Equally, if not more, charismatic as her co-star, Zendaya steal the show for me. There is an almost tired, ‘over it’ sensibility to her performance as a young starlet with a drug addicted past, and in a movie where measured maturity isn’t the main concern for either individual in the midst of their arguing, Zendaya’s reactive stoicism often proves to be the most effective element when the insults are flying. They are an impossibly gorgeous couple, and that makes the ugliness of their words to one another even more striking.
Overall, I think I can appreciate a lot of what Malcolm & Marie has to offer, from the strong performances to the luxurious look of the film to certain voyeuristic moments of high tension, but there is something about the overbearing presence of the filmmaker that cuts through the dramatic universe of the picture that is very off-putting. What I wanted to watch was a relationship drama that I could get truly wrapped up in, but far too often it felt like Sam Levinson was using the characters as mouth pieces for his own opinions. Just start a podcast, dude.