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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Malcolm & Marie

Zendaya and John David Washington are fantastic in this stylish romantic drama from the creator of 'Euphoria', which was shot in quarantine in mid-2020.
By Sarah Ward
January 28, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
January 28, 2021
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UPDATE, February, 5, 2021: Malcolm & Marie is available to stream via Netflix.

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Where everything from Blue Valentine and the Before trilogy to Marriage Story have previously gone, Malcolm & Marie follows: into the fiery heat and knotty struggles of a complicated relationship. Like the heartbreaking Blue Valentine, it charts ecstatic highs and agonising lows. As Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight did, it relies upon dialogue swapped frequently, passionately and with chemistry. And stepping in Marriage Story's territory, it follows a director and an actor as their career choices highlight issues they've plastered over with sex, smiles and their usual routine for far too long. Still, while assembled from familiar pieces — the aforementioned movies aren't alone in stripping bare complex amorous entanglements, as the likes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Scenes From a Marriage demonstrated first — Malcolm & Marie slinks into its niche. It's devastatingly stylish thanks to its black-and-white colour palette, elegant costuming and luxurious single-location setting. It glides by almost entirely on the strength of its ferocious performances. But it's also indulgent and obvious, as well as clumsy in its handling of many of its conversation topics. Like most relationships, it soars at times and sinks at others.

Shot in quarantine in mid-2020, the romance drama meets its eponymous couple on a momentous night, with filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington, Tenet) all abuzz after the premiere of his latest feature. The critics gushed to him in-person so, arriving back at the flashy house that's been rented for him, he's drunk on praise and eager to celebrate with Marie (Zendaya, Spider-Man: Far From Home). As she cooks him mac 'n' cheese, he pours drinks and relives the evening's highlights. But Marie isn't as enthusiastic, or as willing to cast everything about the premiere in a rosy glow. The catalyst for her simmering discontent, other than just the state of their relationship: as Malcolm & Marie writer/director Sam Levinson admits he did himself at the premiere of his 2017 movie Assassination Nation, Malcolm forgot to thank Marie. Levinson's wife only brought it up once, he has said; however, the moment the subject comes up on-screen, Marie isn't willing to accept Malcolm's claim that he simply forgot.

Cue oh-so-much arguing, mixed in with cosier banter, broader chats about art and politics, Marie's frequent escapes outside to smoke and Malcolm's impatient waiting for the first reviews of his film to drop. Marie bathes, slipping out of her shimmering dress. Malcolm dances, and also thinks that playing the right song at the right time will patch over all of his girlfriend's worries. Again and again, their discussion circles back to their history. Malcolm's movie is about a 20-year-old addict, and Marie once was that woman. She feels as if her real and painful experiences have hoovered up by him, without any appreciation or recognition — without casting her in the role, too — a contention that his lack of public acknowledgement has only solidified. In response, he easily spits back all the ways he didn't raid her life, and all the other women from his past he also used for inspiration.

It can get repetitive, as wars of words are known to in the intensity of the moment, and yet Malcolm & Marie is at its best when its characters fight specifically about their relationship. That's when the film stings with authenticity; Levinson's own situation mightn't have turned out the same way, but no one is a stranger to quarrelling with their nearest and dearest, and his script shows it. When Malcolm & Marie works other affairs into the back-and-forth, though, it overplays its hand. It threatens to forget that it's about people rather than about ideas. Levinson takes aim at the current state of cinema and the discourse it inspires — including increasing calls for authenticity in bringing stories to the screen, the response that it's the craft rather than the experience that truly makes filmic art, and the way movies by talent from marginalised backgrounds are viewed through that lens — but his navel-gazing feel muddled and hollow at best. Case in point: the feature also has Malcolm delight in being fawned over by critics, rage against writers he doesn't think understand his work and complain about anyone who reads his films in a way he doesn't approve.

Thankfully, even in Malcolm & Marie's least necessary scenes, it boasts Zendaya and Washington. No one else is seen in the film, in fact. Zendaya won an Emmy in 2020 for TV series Euphoria — which Levinson created, writes and has directed the bulk of, and is also based on his own experiences  — and she's in blistering form here as well. When Marie is still glammed up from the night's festivities, Zendaya wears a mask of composure and determination atop her flawless makeup. When the character changes, then pads around in her underwear, the exacting performer lets her facade drop in favour of a more relaxed but still just as raw brand of pain and fury. She's impossible to look away from, but Washington is no slouch. He's given the least sympathetic but also more overtly showy part, and wears it like a second skin. Indeed, he sells Malcolm's arrogance, privilege, never-wavering confidence and volatile anger that comes out in his rants as convincingly as he sold the ruse that was crucial to his role in BlacKkKlansman.

Zendaya and Washington's performances are so strong and compelling — hers especially — that when the two-hander's material lets them down, it's noticeable. The screenplay's lack of resonance and texture, key traits evident in all the best relationship dramas, is evident, too. As a result, the film easily leaves viewers wondering what might've eventuated if it hadn't been cooked up in a pandemic, designed to work within COVID-19 restrictions and scripted in six days. Cracks in even the most blissful romances take time to expand. Malcolm and Marie's central love affair has clearly never been all sunshine and roses, but the movie they're in lacks the weightiness that might've come if it had been the product of a longer gestation process. Levinson's sultry and gorgeous visuals also call attention to the movie's hastiness. From leisurely tracking shots peering in at its key duo from outside their lush abode to the many exquisite-looking ways it frames Zendaya and Washington together, Malcolm & Marie is designed to look timeless, and yet the substance that's supposed to anchor that style continually feels rushed.

Image: Netflix.

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