There’s a tendency for trailers to reveal the best parts of the film it’s advertising, thus taking a great amount of enjoyment away from a first viewing. Comedies tell their best jokes, action movies spoil their biggest set pieces… but with Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie, we’re simply told this is not a love story, but the story of love. The marketing was enticingly vague and oozed style and sophistication, and absolutely didn’t ruin any of writer-director Sam Levinson’s pandemic project.
Stylish and sophisticated is exactly what it is, both in its atmosphere and composition, with its jazzy soundtrack, black-and-white film stock, and cool set design. We’re immediately introduced to Malcolm (John David Washington) and his partner Marie (Zendaya) as they return home from an awards night, during which Malcolm won a prestigious filmmaking award and has been touted as the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins. It’s the biggest night of his life and all he wants to do is celebrate (after a bowl of mac and cheese) in their stunning modernist home. However, the night takes a turn when the fault-lines in Malcolm and Marie’s relationship start to crack, starting with Malcolm forgetting to say ‘thank you’ to Marie… in more ways than one.
Malcolm & Marie echoes certain aspects of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which likewise saw Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha and Richard Burton’s George go toe-to-toe in an adapted-from-the-stage all-night booze fest. They both also share razor sharp screenplays, but while Mike Nichols’ directorial debut is witty in its black humour and one-line takedowns between the older couple, Malcolm & Marie cuts deep with its dialogue into its characters’ depths. Just when you think things are going better (to the point of them having sex), something comes up, and the pair tell each other brutal truths about the other, shedding layer after layer of emotional armour until they are both completely vulnerable.
Levinson’s script is dense and as heavy as the emotional baggage carried by its two characters. It manages to tell us a huge amount about each of its characters’ lives in a concentrated 106-minutes, playing out almost in real-time, gripping you from start to finish. It’s fascinating to think that Levinson completed the majority of the script in just six days, as it’s a masterwork in screenwriting. Whether it’s Malcolm’s rant about the current state of the film industry and film criticism (there’ something wryly meta about watching this as a critic), or Marie’s quick wittedness to everything Malcolm has to say, the dialogue is masterfully written and performed by two actors at the top of their game.
John David Washington was excellent in BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Tenet (2020), but this is by far his strongest performance to date. The way he portrays Malcolm’s egocentric narcissism is sharply contrasted by his chastened expression when Marie unpacks him. Zendaya is similarly electric, and although most film fans will recognise her from her roles in the Spider-Man and Disney franchises, her performance here echoes her role as Rue in HBO’s Euphoria (2019)—which is her and creator Sam Levinson’s previous collaboration. That character was another recovering drug addict with a troubled past. Washington’s and Zendaya’s chemistry is simply enthralling, too. At one point Marie reminds Malcolm during his rant that a critic called his film a “masterwork.” After a short pause, he yells “I don’t give a fuck!” The timing is flawless.
The film is shot by another of Levinson’s regular collaborators: Hungarian cinematographer Marcell Rév. The film is sensually shot as the camera follows Malcolm and Marie’s hands and mouths as they travel down each other’s bodies, or sits stationary as the couple move through various frames separated by the structures of their home. The choice to shoot on monochrome film stock removes some sense of reality, thus focussing the film on its emotions and ideas.
In terms of the ideas, there’s a lot to unpack here. Malcolm and Marie both say so much it’s hard to believe that any real person could articulate their thoughts and feelings so well whilst being so emotional (they literally bark at each other at the peak of one argument). This can be put down simply to Levinson’s tight script. But just as I was beginning to question what the point of this film was, Malcolm says “cinema doesn’t need to have a message, it needs to have a heart.” There’s a lot said in this film—from the current state of the white, male dominated world we find ourselves in, to the creative process and use of our experiences for inspiration—but that can be one take home message that viewers can count on as gospel.
With awards season looming, Netflix has plenty to offer: from Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020) and David Fincher’s Mank (2020) to the Vanessa Kirby-led Pieces of a Woman (2020), it’s difficult to guess which of their productions will be up for an Academy Award soon. But Malcolm & Marie surely must be high up on that list; from its writing, direction and performance to production design and cinematography, there’s cinematic sophistication evident at every level.
USA | 106 MINUTES | 1.85 : 1 | BLACK AND WHITE | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Sam Levinson
starring: Zendaya & John David Washington.