Updated: Feb 10, 2021
I'm not sure if there has been as much anticipation for a movie filmed during quarantine as the new Netflix drama Malcolm & Marie. Last year, Netflix paid $30million for the film at the Toronto Film Festival. Written and directed by the creator of HBO's sensational series Euphoria, the combination of casting Zendaya and John David Washington and the announcement that HBO would be releasing two special episodes of the show over the holidays also helped spread word-of-mouth.
The show is often praised for its refreshing approach to teenagers gone wild and seamlessly integrates artful music, jarring editing, and stunning, ethereal cinematography. Malcolm & Marie is similarly gorgeous to look at and is predictably weighted with dialogue, much like Euphoria's special episodes. The performances also elevate the screenplay about a film director and his girlfriend returning home after his latest film's premiere. There can be comparison's drawn to director/writer Sam Levinson's own experiences in Hollywood, but ultimately Malcolm & Marie is another example of his pristine visual style capturing illuminating confrontations.
Shot in black and white and with a deliberately vintage, old Hollywood aesthetic, we see the couple return home after the premiere. Malcolm (John David Washington) puts a record on and adorably dances around the living room in celebration. Marie enters the room, opens the side door, and lights a cigarette. Their moods are not aligned. Malcolm delivered a knockout punch of a film and is on top of the world. The white critics likened him to Spike Lee, and he relishes this 'super white moment.' When she comes back inside, Marie reveals that Malcolm forgot to thank her in his speech and that he could've admitted that he used her life as the film's subject. Marie asks Malcolm if he thinks the movie would have worked if they hadn't been together, and he responds, no... it wouldn't have.
This conversation cascades into a gushing river of personal reflections and character examinations. Marie reveals that the portrayal of her likeness in the film made her regret sharing so much with him. He takes her for granted, and Marie gets none of the respect his colleagues, friends, and family receive. The movie's premiere has been the trigger of prolonged simmering feelings about the film's genesis, including Malcolm choosing not to cast Marie. It's a searing accusation that motivates Malcolm to remind her that she didn't want the part and didn't fight hard enough to get it either. Marie needs to work up the food chain as everyone else does, but above all, trust that someone on the planet loves her even though she doesn't love herself. Her uncomfortableness is her past, but her past is who she is, and Malcolm tells Marie that he loves everything about her.
There is no doubt that this is a heavy film. Any time spent with a couple you've just met, who are on-screen yelling at each other every ten minutes, is going to be exhausting. But thankfully, Levinson's direction and storytelling gently unfold the story. His ability to capture the small details of this couple makes the film mesmerizing. Just look at Marie's adoring smile as Malcolm gets mad in the kitchen about the LA Times review by a white reviewer. It's a simple moment that exudes admiration for his passion.
Or watch as Marie sits in the bathtub absorbing Malcolm's determination for her to understand that she is not, and has not been, his only girlfriend that he drew upon for the film because they've both had lives before dating each other. Levinson holds on to Washington's face as Malcolm expresses his hurt. When he leaves, we catch Marie smiling before fading into a mixture of pain, vulnerability, and embarrassment. The performances heighten the drama, but the natural chemistry is there. One stand-out scene shows Marie giving Malcolm a taste of how she would've interpreted his lead character, and it's a wonderfully realized moment that Zendaya chews to significant effect, scaring the hell out of Malcolm in the process.
Later in the film, Malcolm goes on a tirade in the backyard about the white reviewer applauding his film's emotions rather than the craft. Malcolm believes the reviewer says that he's subverting a trope, presumably because he's a black man directing the film, but he wants to be judged as a filmmaker rather than what he may represent to other people. Filmmaking is a symphony between visuals, style, and performance, and that's what he set out to achieve, not a political statement.
Through the character of Malcolm, Levinson may be talking about the critical reception surrounding Euphoria on HBO. It certainly feels like art imitating life. The conversations are enlightening about a specific kind of lifestyle, and the film feels like a nod to the critics who politicize Levinson's filmmaking. But Zendaya and John David Washington convince in their emotion that this is a story about Malcolm and Marie.
Now bring on season two of Euphoria!
Available to stream on Netflix.