Film Critic Ffion Hâf enjoys the style and dialogue of Malcolm and Marie despite its unsatisfying narrative
Malcolm and Marie is, if nothing else, a motion picture length argument driven by vanity and two incredibly self-involved individuals. Marie (Zendaya) is deeply pained by Malcolm’s (John David Washington) failure to simply thank her during his post-premiere speech, despite the fact that his movie is undoubtedly inspired by the substance abuse and ill mental health which has defined her tumultuous life. To him, it is a small mistake unworthy of overthinking; however, it functions as a springboard to evaluate their dysfunctional and ugly relationship, each determined to win the constantly escalating argument.
Interestingly, music is a focal point of the film. The jazz score blends are carefully selected to perfectly accompany each scene. The tracks do the talking when the characters cannot, or should not, leaving the opportunity for scene development or reflection. For instance, James Brown’s Down and Out in New York City alludes to a feel-good atmosphere and a sense of celebration as Malcolm dances across the house. This scene allows the audience to view the contrast in the characters, as Malcolm, living in his own world, is oblivious to the feelings of his girlfriend.
Malcolm is very much trapped inside his egotistical bubble, ranting about readings of his work and complaining that everything produced by a Black director will instantly be viewed with a racial political lens. This is not entirely incorrect; however, the emphasis and aggression of his tone suggest insecurity and a lack of faith in his own work deep down. It is this insecurity, I believe, that makes him unable to thank Marie for her contribution to the film, which is the true reason everyone considers it to be such an ‘authentic’ piece of work. Marie is depicted as a character who is willing to show her vulnerability whilst also holding the ability to acknowledge the same in Malcolm, despite his refusal to show himself as anything less than the dominant male in control.
Subsequently, Malcolm is an artist who takes more from the women in his life than he will ever be willing to give. He manipulates and makes use of her story for a film that brings him glory, leaving Marie on the sidelines. He alludes to the fact that he has not only stolen her life but countless other women’s; this suggests that his original idea is in fact a lie – he has stolen the lives of women to further his own. While Malcolm’s last name is heard, Marie’s is never. She has just as much to say, and, arguably, if the film focused more on Marie and her backstory it would be a more interesting depiction of her tale, rather than through the male gaze of Malcolm’s film. Director Sam Levinson restricts his female lead, insinuating that it is a lack of confidence that gets in her way, rather than the men controlling her existence both in the film and its production.
While the film could have been draining in its repetitive rhythm, the pace of the scenes mixed with the witty and articulate nature of the dialogue makes a perfect combination leaving audiences wanting more. At no point does the dialogue become predictable, you never know where it is going to go next or who will take the next shot. Both actors bring an effortless naturalism to their roles and treat these vicious emotional cycles as though they were as easy as breathing. Washington’s character screams for attention and approbation, whilst Zendaya’s voice becomes detached, consumed by silent devastation. The pair are convincing in their performances, so much so that you tolerate the ping-pong of constant arguments throughout the film just to see how it all unfolds. They work with the material beautifully and the enjoyment of the film is anchored in the work of its actors.
The choice to shoot the film in black and white gives it a superficial elegance that reflects its characters and their precariousness. There is an incredible emphasis on wanting to be ‘authentic’ throughout the film, but this aim will forever be unattainable until the characters decide to look beyond themselves and see how their actions affect the people around them. Marie says at the beginning of the film that ‘nothing productive is going to be said tonight,’ and unfortunately this is the truth. Malcolm and Marie depicts an unsustainable relationship destined to destroy both parties. One half of the relationship is a self-absorbed egotist whilst the other is broken beyond the point of repair.
At the start of the film, Malcolm argues that ‘cinema doesn’t need to have a message. It needs to have a heart and electricity.’ Yet, Malcolm and Marie appear to have none. Undoubtedly, the film raises multiple meaningful discussions, such as mental health, addiction, love and the meaning of art. However, neither the conversation nor the characters are able to move forward, and, as an audience, we begin to question whether or not they truly love each other when their speech is driven by such hate. By no means is this film dull or poorly made, but its decision to keep the dysfunctional pair together is questionable and viewers may be left feeling as though they have been given more content than they desired or were prepared for.
Malcolm and Marie is currently streaming on Netflix