Structured like a boxing match and told with the intensity of a scream into an empty void, Malcolm & Marie finds writer-director Sam Levinson in peak introspection mode, both professionally and personally.
It's the first Hollywood feature film to have been entirely conceived and created during the Covid-19 pandemic; made with a skeletal crew over two weeks in Monterey, California; the setting for another great 'peril in paradise' story, Big Little Lies. But there are no pulp thrills on offer here, as a Hollywood director and his actor girlfriend return home after the successful premiere of his latest film, and proceed to participate in what can only be described as the verbal equivalent of the fight scenes in Raging Bull.
Watch the trailer of Malcolm & Marie here
Malcolm (John David Washington) is ecstatic with the reaction to his movie; several critics assured him after the screening that he has made a masterpiece. Marie (Zendaya), meanwhile, is mostly silent as she prepares some post-game (or pre-game, depending on how you look at it) mac and cheese for him. It's the first round; they're circling inside the ring, an elephant trapped in there with them.
"Nothing productive is going to be said tonight," she warns him, and us, when he asks her what's wrong. But then, if nothing is said, we wouldn't have a movie, would we? Left with no choice, Marie throws the first punch: Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech, and she's upset, because the movie that he made, she feels, was largely inspired by her troubled past.
Filmed in glorious black-and-white by Marcell Rev, and scored to jazzy perfection by Labrinth, Malcolm & Marie is an unsettling chamber piece that could prove to be triggering for certain people. It plays out, essentially, in real-time, as the gloves come off and our two protagonists hit each other where it hurts the most, like only lovers can. With no room to escape, all you can do is sit in silence and contemplate some of the things you yourself have said in the past, in conversations like the one that you're watching unfold.
In many ways, Malcolm and Marie are two sides to Levinson's personality — the egotistic masculine side, that was hailed as a bold new voice in American cinema after the release of Assassination Nation, and then Euphoria; and the feminine side, the one he wishes he could tap into more passionately, as he tells stories about women.
It's like he's preemptively punching down at the negative reviews that he must've anticipated for this film, when he has Malcolm declare that cinema isn't about relaying a message, but about emotion; it isn't about depicting reality, but creating an impression of it. In an insane rant midway through the film, Malcolm mocks the 'white woman from the LA Times' for giving his movie a rave review, but for all the wrong reasons. He's tremendously irritated at her for politicising his character study, and comparing him, a Black man, to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins. It's the sign of a conceited mind, but also one that is too insecure to accept praise.
Why should his race, or his gender, matter? It shouldn't, he says, as he unleashes a horrible melee of insults at the critic. It's the equivalent of a WWE wrestler knocking out the referee with a steel chair.
So what does this mean? Are we supposed to ignore the fact that Sam Levinson is a white man who just made a movie about two persons of colour? That he chose to shoot on film and not digital? That the event that probably triggered him into making Malcolm & Marie in the first place was an actual negative LA Times review for Assassination Nation? Why, yes, we should, he appears to be suggesting.
But for every point that Levinson makes via his characters — about art, life and love — he has the other present a counterpoint. Malcolm represents his ego; Marie his super-ego. Levinson writes himself into corners that only he can escape from.
"Once you know people are there for you and love you, you never think of them again," Marie tells Malcolm, twisting the knife deeper when she suggests he loves his fictional creations more than her, and that he kept her around only to extract new material for his film. He retaliates by demeaning her, and says that she has overestimated her influence on his life — his lead character, Imani, is an amalgamation of several ex-lovers; Marie, in fact, represents the weakest aspects of her personality.
Filled with wall-to-wall dialogue, the lines in Malcolm & Marie aren't as naturalistic as you'd imagine. Every word, every pause, every inflection feels deliberate. That's a challenging situation for an actor to be in. But both Washington and Zendaya are magnificent, brash in one moment, and vulnerable in the next.
Levinson doesn't use close-ups too often, preferring instead to either isolate his characters inside painterly frames, or to confine the two together within them. So when he finally cuts to their faces, usually after someone has shot an arrow that can't be returned to its quiver, he achieves what Malcolm has been yelling about for an hour: true emotional empathy.
Despite its hostility towards people in my profession, I found Malcolm & Marie to be particularly moving. In an age when most mainstream cinema is designed to lull you into an inebriated state, here's a movie that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and demands that you think. If anything, it's hopeful — a film that suggests that those who inflict the deepest wounds on you are usually the best equipped to dress them.