The reactions to Malcolm and Marie were shared to say the least.
In one extreme case, some critics have quickly hailed Sam Levinson’s black and white character study as a surprising addition to the Prize Race, an engaging, old-fashioned character drama enshrined in two compelling performances that questions a relationship that never seems certain to implode or will explode. It’s the kind of film that invites comparison with work like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The guys in the band or even something Autumn sonata: Characters trapped in a confined space and whose drama is ready to boil over.
On the other hand, critics have been quick to argue this Malcolm and Marie is an indulgent mess anchored in an extremely improbable and shallow protagonist who never digs under the skin of his main characters. Furthermore, Levinson seems to be seizing the film as an opportunity to solve his own problems as a promising (and privileged) young filmmaker who feels like he hasn’t necessarily received the critical respect he deserves. Malcolm and Marie is a series of self-serious monologues held in the aesthetic of a (very pretty) Calvin Klein commercial.
As always, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.
Most immediate and most obvious Malcolm and Marie looks great. The film was shot at the beginning of the pandemic and takes place entirely in and around the house that the title characters share. While the credits roll in, the camera waits for them to return home. Their car drives over the hill and towards the house, as if the unsuspecting couple are falling into a monstrous trap. Malcolm and Marie Occasionally ventures into the garden outside the house, but there is always a feeling that the space is limited. Even if Marie disappears into the night, she cannot escape Malcolm – or herself.
Malcolm and Marie is not a movie over the pandemic. Unlike other films made during the outbreak, like Songbird or BlockedThe film isn’t based on the well-known notion of a virus that forces characters to interact closely with one another. Still, the ghost of the pandemic hangs over the film. Malcolm and Marie are trapped together in a confined space. Their common world is small and everyone finds each other’s gravity inevitable. Malcolm and Marie is not literally a pandemic movie, but it feels like one.
Part of it is the way Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév shoot the film. Rév has worked with Levinson and Zendaya on euphoriaand there is a strong sense of aesthetic audacity in their work. Malcolm and Marie is shot in bold black and white, which gives the drama an element of class and sophistication and at the same time suggests the type of classic character drama of the mid-20th century. Levinson and Rév use light to great effect, playing out sharp contrasts in a way that enhances the film’s heightened and claustrophobic feel.
This choice increases the intensity of the drama and creates the feeling that Malcolm and Marie are constantly in the spotlight – scrutinized by themselves or by others. There are points where it feels almost unreal, like the silhouette of the trees in the back garden indicating spotlights shining on this common space, but it certainly adds to the mood and claustrophobia of this character drama: two people trapped in a confined space with the contrast turned up to better highlight their imperfections.
As with many editions of Levinson, it is tempting to ask when this is the case “too much” with any of it. There are points where Malcolm and Marie feels less like a finished film than a film school project. Even so, the aesthetics largely work. Levinson and Rév are constantly shooting down tables, through blinds and across halls. The camera often circles familiar rooms and films their characters through windows or doors.
While many of the voyeuristic and peering camera angles feel a bit clumsy and on the nose, they are nonetheless effective. Levinson’s camera circles and spirals in the closed rooms create a noticeable claustrophobia that hangs over the film. In every objective way, the house and garden that Malcolm and Marie share is lavish, however Malcolm and Marie suggests that even these rooms can feel like a prison. So much of Malcolm and Marie are characters who scream in houses and back gardens and suffocate themselves in a way that speaks to the moment.
Unfortunately, the drama just doesn’t work. That kind of small, character-based movie should be the most obvious type of movie to make in the pandemic. In practice, it only requires a small cast and crew, and it is shot in a single location. Thematically and narrative, the claustrophobia of this type of story should also indirectly resonate with the audience. Almost everyone on the planet should know what it feels like to be trapped, and therefore these stories should work well – even abstractly.
It’s a familiar template, and it shouldn’t be difficult to get the template to work, especially with two actors as talented and approachable as John David Washington and Zendaya. Unfortunately, Malcolm and Marie fiddles the playbook in a number of very obvious and very blatant ways. Most obvious is the movie begins The emotional intensity was raised to the max, and the opening scenes literally played against Marie making a pot of mac and cheese as if to convey the intensity of the unfolding drama.
There is very little space for Malcolm and Marie escalate. There are no micro-attacks in Malcolm and Marie, just a constant stream of aggression. Malcolm is introduced to berating Marie with feverish intensity, and it barely takes a few minutes for the couple to have their first scream match. That sets Malcolm and Marie in an awkward position where the internal drama does not build up. It ebbs and flows clumsily. Malcolm and Marie scream at each other. You calm down. They yell at each other again. It’s the dramatic equivalent of spinning an engine for two hours.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Malcolm and Marie never digs deep into its central characters. Malcolm is selfish and arrogant. It’s a well-known stereotype, especially in such character studies of Hollywood personalities. Malcolm is a seemingly “GreatDirector, but a man incapable of basic empathy. In contrast, Marie is preventable and insecure. She walks on eggshells around her lover, a man who is twelve years older than her. Malcolm and Marie never reveals anything about these people that is off the top of the established beats.
It doesn’t help that Malcolm is unbearable. To be fair Malcolm and Marie understands that. That understanding doesn’t make spending two hours with Malcolm any nicer. In some places, Malcolm feels more like a sentient Twitter feed than a person. There’s a sense in that Malcolm and Marie feels a lot like a movie for the #filmTwitterwhich maybe explains the obsession with social media.
Malcolm touches repeatedly and at length about how no one respects the art of filmmaking – the burdens of being a high-profile filmmaker and the horror of letting others read your art. There are occasional shrewd and focused observations, like Malcolm’s criticism of a film critic who cannot distinguish between a steadicam and a dolly shot, but most of it is just empty clichés. Even if the film at least seems to understand that Malcolm is a common archetype, it must contain more than rhetorical clichés and recycled arguments.
Indeed, it is admittedly a bit uncomfortable to what extent the film seems to draw on Levinson’s own experiences as a successful aspiring filmmaker and showrunner. The film includes an extensive discussion of how Malcolm portrayed sexual assault in his film that feels a bit too much like Levinson sharpening an ax with similar criticisms of his own work. This is not necessarily a problem in itself, but the argument is made to be casually dismissed rather than treated as an opportunity for introspection.
Generally speaking, Malcolm’s privileged background is reminiscent of Levinson’s own childhood and breakthrough, but the film only incites criticism of Malcolm for disapproval. Indeed, Malcolm and Marie complicates and obscures this criticism by tying these familiar elements of Levinson’s biography to a black filmmaker faced with institutional prejudices unknown to Levinson. As a result, the merger of the two appears both awkward and ill-advised. Malcolm and Marie seems to share Malcolm’s lack of introspection rather than questioning her.
Marie is an even bigger problem. Levinson writes and shoots his muse as an object rather than a person. While John David Washington stays in a suit for the film, Zendaya spends a lot of time wandering the claustrophobic sets of the film in panties and wet shirts. In fact, it is noteworthy that the discussion of how Malcolm shoots women as sex objects takes place while Marie is presented in this sexualized way, and Malcolm even points to this sexualization as a justification for his own choices, easily ignoring that Levinson it is choose Shoot Zendaya like that too.
Even as a character, Marie mostly serves as a mouthpiece to talk about Malcolm. She often feels like nothing more than a sexy mirror that can stand up to a man’s widest sketch. Marie has her own story and backstory, but the film cares much less about what she has to say or what she thinks about something that is not Malcolm. Washington and Zendaya do their best with the material, but they play more caricatures than characters. Malcolm and Marie are not so much individuals as they are monologue delivery mechanisms.
And yet Malcolm and Marie is an interesting misfire. It is committed to what it does, even if the execution leaves something to be desired.