Malcolm & Marie is about a filmmaker who is excited about the energy and buzz of his film premiere, but the mood turns sour when his girlfriend brings up the fact he didn't thank her in a speech he made at the during the event. The fight lasts long into the night as the argument dredges up other things that have been festering for a while. The film stars Zendaya and John David Washington. The film is written and directed by Sam Levinson. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
It's hard to know what to parse into when a film makes its views apparent that criticism in itself is masturbatory, lazy and intellectually miniscule. There's a lot of anger directed at a critic's desire to put a film into the context of the filmmaker's identity as well as a larger narrative about what a filmmaker tries to express about the world through their film. The film is wanting the art of film to be above the level of those who may pick through and seek to understand.
The art of Malcolm & Marie is beautiful in many ways. It functions as a stage to screen adaptation without the history that plagues those productions. It's got the claustrophobia brought on by the restrictions of location and actors, but it is inherently cinematic in how it plays out. Levinson and his cinematographer Marcell Rév create a dynamic view of this space and the people who are trapped within it. Including a fabulous dolly shot (yes, not a steadicam) that opens the film from outside the house. Shot in luscious black and white, the film has a texture and depth that makes the viewing of this hard fought battle palatable. When the gloves are off in a fight, though it's hard to want to keep watching.
That's where Sam Levinson's script shines. He's created some verbal sparring that's sharp and powerful. The monologues are a meal of delectable, despicable, heart breaking, and funny words. Levinson also has the ability to write both sides of the argument well. Whenever Malcolm comes up with a new point of contention, Marie can bring him back down with her own perspective. It's so well written, but also has a feeling of being natural and, I know Levinson may hate that I use this word, but, authentic to these characters. Is that all Levinson, though? No. The acting showcases two performers giving everything they have to these roles and characters.
I've seen or recognized John David Washington in a handful of films and this is the most expressive and energetic I have ever seen him. I love this side of his acting and I wonder if this is what he's like without constraint. He puts force and fury into his words and actions, but he's also gifted with excellent comedic timing. Washington knows how to land a joke. I can't help thinking he brought some of his personal history into this role as he likely had to watch his father's struggles to be understood as a filmmaker.
That also comes through in Zendaya's performance as she started her career as a model before landing some plum roles. I also haven't seen the breadth of Zendaya's career, but I know I had a bias coming in because those Spider-Man films she's been in have her with no charisma or charm. Yet, here, she is incredible. For a film like this to work, the leads need to be compelling to watch and I couldn't take my eyes off of her. Her movements, micro facial expressions, her very being seemed to be subverted in service to this character. If this is what she's capable of, I hope she is seen for the truly talented actress she is and fights to read for meatier roles in future projects.
In an interpretation that Levinson may hate, I would like to pose that though this is a film on the surface about a couple, a relationship and a condemnation of auteur theory when it comes to filmmaking and writing, this film is also an allegory for the COVID-19 pandemic. Shot entirely during the time of the pandemic, Malcolm & Marie is focused on the isolation of its characters. They have nothing to do, but wait, to think and to fight. They are an allegory for how this crisis has emotionally torn us apart while physically bringing us into close quarters with those we live with. It's a virus that may break us in the end and has long term implications long after the world accepts a new normalcy.
Is Malcolm & Marie a good movie, yes. Is it flawed, absolutely. I got glassy eyed during some portions of the fight and as it roles back and forth through the same arguments over and over it fails to hold my interest for long. Would I recommend you see it? Yes. You should see this for the beautiful photography and the exquisite performances. Just know that is can lag and emotionally feels like three hours despite its hour and forty-five plus run time.