A product of the film industry’s struggle with the challenges the ongoing pandemic presents to filmmaking, Malcolm & Marie is a small, powerfully made exploration of its titular characters and their relationship.
After returning from the incredibly successful premiere of filmmaker Malcolm’s latest movie, the pair begin to air their grievances with one another in one of the rawest, angriest, most visceral depictions of human relationships committed to film. While it’s all too easy to boil its premise down to ‘director and girlfriend argue after premiere’, it’s actually a deceptively complex look at relationships and the many ways that humans can both love and hurt one another using nothing but words.
From the ground up, Malcolm & Marie is beautiful. While this minimalism was undoubtedly born of the pandemic and its impact on how director Sam Levinson could plausibly shoot the movie, its necessity doesn’t translate into the final product. Instead, we’re simply grabbed; drawn in by the movie’s long takes as the dysfunctional couple’s arguments play out in real time, by the constant shifting of power and blame from one to the other, and by the question of whether either of them is actually right – or wrong, for that matter.
Malcolm & Marie captures the essence of emotional abuse in an occasionally uncomfortable manner, causing us to re-examine ourselves and our roles in our relationships both past and present. While it might be cathartic to those who have lived through similar relationships, it’s not hard to imagine that this line of storytelling might be a little alienating to some, and more than a little triggering for those still struggling to come to terms with similar experiences. Malcolm & Marie is never outright insensitive, but it’s heavy viewing, and it’s entirely unapologetic for being so.
Both John David Washington and Zendaya deliver emotional, driven performances, and without their hot-and-cold chemistry Malcolm & Marie would fall entirely to pieces due to the inconsistent quality of its writing which, much like the relationship it follows, goes through a roller-coaster of highs and lows right before our eyes. There’s a sense of mania in the back and forth between the couple; a frenzied love/hate dynamic on a hair trigger, and it’s simultaneously fascinating and exhausting.
It’s thought-provoking, emotional, and unexpectedly enthralling, but its reluctance to have either of its characters face any apparent consequences for their heinous mistreatment of one another is something that left a vague aftertaste of dissatisfaction – despite it being the most plausible and realistic way to conclude the story.
Summary: Malcolm & Marie is poignant, uncomfortable, and engaging by turns, but its also somewhat disappointing. For all its emotion and all its dialogue, it feels like very little is actually said by the time the credits roll.