Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
There’s something particularly confronting about seeing a relationship get tested. Most storytellers are aware of this, deliberately ramping up our anxiety by forcing us to be a fly on the wall for an entire domestic spat. Versions of this have been done from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) to Blue Valentine (2010). Pretty much the opposite of romantic comedies, these aren’t the kinds of films you’d watch on date night. If the filmmakers have done their job correctly, these stories should be just as engaging as they are hard to watch. It’s a tricky balancing act, as most of these films want to make us wish these people never found each other, while also hoping they can be happy together. Director Sam Levinson achieves one half of this equation with Malcolm and Marie (2021).
Up and coming writer/director Malcolm Elliott (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie Jones (Zendaya) have just returned home from the premiere of Malcolm’s latest movie. Malcolm is eagerly excited to read the professional reviews following the rapturous response from the audience, but he notices there’s something slightly off about Marie. He presses her for answers as to why she is in a foul mood, leading to the discovery that she’s feeling unappreciated for not being included in his speech. He thanked everyone of importance except her, which is particularly problematic for Marie considering the lead character of Malcolm’s film is based on her. Malcolm denies this, inciting an intense argument which reveals their inner demons and burgeoning hatred for each other.
Director Sam Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév are clearly aware of the long legacy of relationship breakdown films, as there’s an obvious homage to Mike Nichols’ classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). The gorgeous black and white colour scheme is beautifully crafted with a delicate balance of light and shadow. The deep shadows not only help highlight the details bathed in light, but also create hypnotic definition around every corner of the frame. If there was any doubt as to whether or not black and white films look as good as colour, Malcolm and Marie shatters that doubt. It’s an impressive rendering, as it’s clear the film was shot, lit and even production designed to be seen this way.
The visual artistry isn’t the only thing working in the film’s favour, as the performances of John David Washington and Zendaya keep things highly energetic. Over the last few years, Washington has made a name for himself in Christopher Nolan’s trippy spy thriller, Tenet (2020) and Spike Lee’s dramatic masterpiece, BlacKkKlansman (2018). As Malcolm, he effectively displays the cynical wisdom of an artistic mind, paired with a selfishly egotistical drive. The fact that he fully commits to being a highly unlikeable presence speaks to his talent. Washington is matched by the darkly charming Zendaya, who has made a career out of delivering emotionally damaged yet intimidatingly confident performances. The pair aren’t quite as perfect a toxic couple as Virginia Woolf’s Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (who were at each other’s throats in real life), But Zendaya and Washington do feel like they’ve been drifting apart for years.
It’s a good thing the performances are the central focus, because sadly the script leaves something to be desired. Telling a story in real time with only two characters and one location is never easy, but there’s still plenty of narrative drama to be gleaned from that set up. A domestic argument lasting for nearly two hours can definitely happen in reality, but there’s generally a cause and effect to the conversational points. While the couple does certainly address every topic raised, there’s a slight lack of believable organisation to it. Some truly hurtful things are said, but the appropriate responses are only brought up when it’s time for the next story turn. This has an unfortunate side effect on the characters, making them feel more toxic and petty than the film intends. Emotionally crushing moments are left hanging for a bit too long, which in turn makes the moments of reconciliation that happen in-between feel unnatural.
Consequently, the strange segmentation of the argument makes the entire film feel like it’s made up of little vignettes. While that style of storytelling is often charming and can break up the monotony, it completely work here. The pace doesn’t flow quite as well as it should, as the characters will be locked in an intense sequence only to pivot to the next. This is admirably intended to give these characters believable emotional complexity, but the result makes them feel a little too contradictory. Nuanced characters are a must in films like this, but the singular arc should still be 100 percent clear. Additionally, this makes it slightly difficult for the viewer to stay focused, seeing as there’s multiple thematic and narrative through lines to keep track of. This causes each 20 minute block to feel like a repeat of the last.
As far as the thematic points go, there’s plenty of meat to chew on once you arrange it all. Framing a broken relationship against discussions around art, art criticism and artistic intent is an ambitious task, and Levinson makes a game effort of it. He has packed the film with everything he can think to say on these subjects, passionately conveying these ideas as if he’s never going to get another chance. You can just feel his satisfaction in openly analysing all the things general audiences, critics and fans often say about their favourite films. There’s plenty of lip service paid to the absurdity of auteur theory and self-insert characters, but the irony is that the film itself revels in it’s own auteurism, while Malcolm is without a doubt a self-insert character. That gets particularly uncomfortable when you consider all the very culturally specific things Malcolm says. It’s a fascinating deconstruction despite never arriving to a decent conclusion.
Ultimately, Malcolm and Marie is well intentioned but lacks restraint. To be clear, filmmakers definitely need to show what’s on their mind, especially when it’s clearly something very personal to them. However, there must be a moment where you look at what’s been written and decide whether you should keep your opinions to yourself, or whether you should go that extra mile to make it ring true. With Malcolm and Marie, it’s a little bit of both.
Best way to watch it: In 20 minute shifts.