New Releases: Malcolm and Marie
Updated: Feb 16
“The course of true love never did run smooth”; Shakespeare’s Lysander may have just watched Malcolm and Marie (Sam Levinson, 2021), for his words describe the film perfectly. Levinson’s movie is an unusual choice for a Valentine’s Day watch, but the emotional pay-off of seeing a warts-and-all love story play out on screen might be worth the turbulence of the film’s 105 minute runtime. And truly turbulent this film is – enough to make you glad you’re single – showing everything that love has to offer: the intensity of the passion, vulnerability, desire, and possessiveness. Yet through it all Malcolm and Marie makes us feel like we’re watching a relationship that is authentic – even if authenticity is the kind of inane buzzword the film tries to side-step.
Levinson’s film is a true two-hander, with John David Washington playing up-and-coming filmmaker Malcolm, a character who exhibits clear inflections of Levinson himself, and Zendaya playing recovering-addict Marie, his girlfriend and all-round support system. This provides the film with two hurdles it must overcome: it must ground the film squarely within the cinematic medium to prevent it from becoming overly theatrical, and the two lead actors must deliver powerhouse performances, for the entire narrative rests upon their shoulders. The former test is passed with aplomb, as Levinson infuses the film with a grainy, monochromatic aesthetic, giving the film a flavour that the stage could not equally provide. Alongside this, the beautiful lockdown-safe setting in which the film is based provides numerous opportunities for Levinson to flex his directorial muscles, giving us wonderful shots of both the interior and exterior of the luxurious building and including smart framings like the final shot to give us a sense of the infinite space of cinema whilst making us acutely aware of its letterbox-shaped limitations. All of this, alongside the glorious costuming and jazzy score make Malcolm and Marie an extremely stylish movie, and a treat for the eyes and ears even before we factor in the quality of the performances and the depth of the script.
In terms of the acting on show here, I would describe it as a film with one and a half outstanding performances. Washington is truly magnificent, unleashing fury, contempt, love, and confusion in mesmerising but controlled tirades. This coming after his turns in BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, 2018) and Tenet (Christopher Nolan, 2020), he continues to cement himself as one of the greatest developing acting talents despite his relatively late start in the industry (discounting those of his dad’s films he features in as a child). Zendaya, through no real fault of her own, is slightly less brilliant. She gives the performance her all, and is very good in her own way, but she just doesn’t fit the part quite right, and certainly can’t match Washington. She looks appropriately glamourous and is the vessel for the knowing male gaze that segments of the film require her to be, but, given her natural looks and the associations of her that one brings into the movie, it is difficult to see her as suitably adult opposite Washington. She cannot shed her youthful appearance and child-actor connotations here, and so the relationship feels unbalanced in ways the film doesn’t intend: it feels as though one half is a mature adult and the other an underdeveloped adolescent.
This conscious male gaze that I alluded to lies amongst numerous ruminations and assertions about the nature of race and the film industry within this movie that have proved rather controversial within criticism circles. The thing is, Levinson knows exactly what he is doing: he is laying down bait and daring us reviewers to bite, and too many foolishly have fallen into his traps. You see, the film itself is the perfect rebuttal to almost all of the criticisms that have subsequently been levelled at Malcolm and Marie, and many personal attacks directed at Levinson himself. The movie contains within it a counter-argument to just about any contextual crime we can think to charge it with, and, indeed, the film’s counter-attack on critics is undoubtedly brilliantly provocative and infuriatingly well-argued. In fact, far from being insulted, I found myself agreeing with many of its challenges and coming to the conclusion that I need to up my own criticism game to keep up with the film’s sharpness of wit and riposte. I have even included a number of the phrases that Malcolm laments in the film throughout this review, partly to be funny, but also because those are genuine thoughts I might have had about the film had the character not already thrown them back in my face. I’d rather this than trying to wriggle out and make equally incorrect assumptions about Levinson and Malcolm and Marie that Malcolm could make me look even more silly about if it was my review he read at 2am after an emotional evening.
It would be wrong to claim that Malcolm and Marie espouses any specific ideology or reveals its definite standpoint on the issues it discusses. To put it in a box in this manner would go against some of the most fundamental themes of the film. If anything, it could be called nihilist; Levinson through Malcolm suggesting that there is little point to being overtly political because nobody really cares what you think anyway. And yet, despite his apathy, people really do seem to care what Levinson thinks: it riles them and whips them up into the sort of judgemental fury that I’m sure the director secretly hoped it might. For my own part, I just love how Levison challenges us through the mouthpiece of his characters. It is the apex of creativity and gives the film a purpose beyond being just a plastic (or merely authentic) love story between a rowing couple. Most crucially of all, this is not a film with a message; it is a film meant to stir you emotionally. Despite their negativity, it has worked for a plethora of critics, it really worked for me, and it makes for riveting Valentine’s Day viewing. Levinson has been widely mocked for being marketed by Malcolm and Marie as a “visionary director”, but if he continues to make films like this, the moniker will soon begin to fit.
At time of writing, Malcolm and Marie is available to watch on Netflix.