In Malcolm & Marie, an attractively photographed shout-filled two-hander written and directed by Sam Levinson, big questions are posed about whether or not we can really pick through a filmmaker’s motives from their work. Malcolm, a director himself, insists that we cannot, that our analytical authority is limited to only the visible evidence: the form and technique. (Fitting then that this movie, shot in black-and-white on 35mm by Marcell Rév, is not without its aesthetic pleasures with strong staging from Levinson.) Though, a filmmaker’s deeper intentions, Malcolm suggests, are fundamentally off-limits, as are any conclusions we might be tempted to draw from their personal identity, which are likely to generate biased, presumptuous judgments that have more to do with politics than art. That’s an arguable point, but it does provide a nifty smokescreen for Levinson, a filmmaker who likes to poke at politics and play games with the viewer’s expectations. For nearly two hours he grants us a front-row seat to an epic lovers’ quarrel between Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya), who have just returned home after the premiere of Malcolm’s new movie. The verbal tussles aren’t relentless; there are breaks for make-up sex and a big bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, but as the (literal) knives come out and dueling views about love, cinema, race, and gender take center stage, we are invited to continually adjust our sympathies and even ponder which character might possibly align with Levinson’s own point of view.
The one you might first jump to would likely be Malcolm, introduced basking in the warm reception for his latest feature. By this point in his career he’s achieved enough success to generate comparisons to Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins — and also to wonder why, as a black filmmaker, he only gets compared to other black filmmakers. Marie, an on-and-off actress in her twenties, listens silently for a while before nudging the conversation in a more pointed, uncomfortable direction. Malcolm notably failed to thank her during his speech at his premier, despite having acknowledged everyone else — an oversight that signals more than just forgetfulness. What it signals, Marie argues, is his deep, unacknowledged guilt at having consciously taken elements of her own traumatic experience and exploited them for the purposes of his art. Malcolm, for his part, forcefully rejects this accusation and the assumption that comes with it. His heroine may have some things in common with Marie — they both struggled with drug addiction and suicidal impulses before getting clean at the age of twenty — but he insists the character’s true inspirations lie elsewhere.
That’s a pretty harsh insult in a movie full of them, whether they be between our titular characters or Malcolm throwing some hate at the critics of his last work. He definitely gets some things right — there assuredly are critics who lack craft/technical knowledge and some who narrowly focus on raw messages at the expense of everything else. Much of Malcolm’s scorn is reserved for the “white lady from the L.A. Times,” which either refers to a fictional strawwoman or real life L.A. Times critic Katie Walsh, who, coincidentally, gave Levinson’s last film a pretty negative review. Yet no matter Malcolm’s hate towards either such a woman, we still learn that she’s praising his new film; calling it a “cinematic tour de force” and “a genuine masterwork.” All of which doesn’t align with Malcolm & Marie.
At first glance the characters’ raised voices and frayed nerves, plus the monochrome palette and the occasional studied jiggle of the camera, seem to evoke the immediacy of early John Cassavetes. (The two-hander structure and the single-location setting were partly dictated by the pandemic, during which the film was swiftly conceived, shot and edited.) But Levinson’s screenplay, with its clearly engineered pivots from Defensive Monologue A to Overlong Rant B, has none of Cassavetes’ ragged spontaneity; it’s rigid to the point of artificiality. Nor, despite Zendaya’s intensity and Washington’s lung power, does their study of a turbulent relationship come close to approaching the depths of searching, searing emotional honesty.
But in the interest of honesty — something that Malcolm and Marie keep demanding of each other, if not always delivering themselves — I can’t deny that I began to question if all this negative speak towards critics and how to analyze art might be some cleverly laid reflexive trap or just overwhelming pettiness. And, in the end, I more lean towards neither, even though Levinson’s dialogue here practically reaches to being a textbook on human pettiness. Yet the problems remain, as his characters still felt vacuous to me. Malcolm, in particular, comes off as little more than a handsome, loud mouthpiece to spew grievances rather than a lived-in human (even if it seems that Levinson is attempting to make him just a very insecure narcissistic). Marie, though, is another story, as she seems designed to be the conscious to Malcolm’s invective mouthpiece. Her points might not always be agreeable, but Zendaya has moments of rendering dialogue irrelevant; holding a close-up with more skill than her costar does, even though both performances can get caught up and trapped in a self-conscious mode of merely mimicking the tempo of a fight.
Malcolm & Marie is the kind of film that relentlessly comments on itself to create the illusion of self-awareness, building to some meta-movie parlor trick that comes back to bite itself. No artist is required to respect criticism, but if they’re going to make a film that’s partly about fielding and taking criticism, from the press or one’s partner, then it should probably take a stand rather than take every side of a self-generated argument while using artifice as a shield so that no one can tie you to any idea. On the other hand, the meta approach allows Levinson to get ahead of some of his critics. At one point Malcolm shouts about how “authenticity doesn’t matter,” and shortly after Marie tells him to not push away people who ground him because he’ll then “start making fake movies about fake people with fake emotions.” Those two assessments ultimately describe Malcolm & Marie pretty well. With a self-awareness that often highlights its weaknesses, Malcolm & Marie can’t be saved from its central pair; never escaping the hollow, artificiality of its conceits.
Malcolm & Marie is available to stream on Netflix