Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie enter the lavish pad provided for Malcolm by his film’s production company.
They’ve just returned from Malcolm’s film’s premiere. The glittering event went very well. Now all he has to do is wait for the all-important reviews. We follow Malcolm dancing triumphantly throughout the rooms having a metaphorical wank over his greatness and the success of the premiere. His girlfriend Marie, still dressed for the red carpet, however, begins to make mac-n-cheese in the kitchen. Through the sounds of music and pot-boiling, Malcolm attempts a breakdown of the event and its success with Marie and it’s here that we begin to get a glimpse of the couple’s problems. Malcolm doesn’t really listen to Marie’s answers as she responds all but monosyllabically. Malcolm doesn’t notice that Marie is disinterested; jaded like she’s seen all this before. Something’s niggling away at Marie about her relationship with Malcolm. When Malcolm finally takes note of her despondency, thus begins the unravelling of their relationship as they start to trade insults through convoluted monologues.
Gorgeously shot (in black and white) Malcolm & Marie is a Zendaya-led passion project written and directed by Sam Levinson – who also directed Zendaya’s Emmy Award win for Euphoria (that Levinson created) where Zendaya plays Rue, a drug addict, which is apt for this role as Marie. Zendaya has made some strategic moves to play a world-weary muse. Perhaps looking at the careers of former child-stars has given her and her team a good road-map for her current successes. We’ll soon see her in the hotly anticipated, Denis Villeneuve-directed sci-fi Dune, slated for a 2021 release. John David Washington as Malcolm is magnetic. We can expect many more fine performances from this developing talent. We’re drawn to him through his charisma and his commanding presence in this film. In Malcolm & Marie he brings some of the characterisation of his Ballers character Ricky Jerret; cock-sure and slick, ego enough for ten people. Malcolm believes in himself but at the expense of others.
So, this brings us to how the excellent talents of Washington and Zendaya are brought together to bring us a film that left me with indifference. Both actors leave no room to question the calibre of their acting abilities. Yet paradoxically there’s a lack of spark. The film, looking like a double-paged spread in Vanity Fair has made it sterile. This rendition of a romantic partnering unravelling is so box-checked that I didn’t care about their past histories. I didn’t care about any pain or trauma they might have endured to get to a place of relative material gain. Successful black film director on the rise in his career; check. Very young, ethnically ambiguous girlfriend and muse devoted to said director; check. Lofty, black-film story yearning for the approval of the white industry gaze; check. Lavish, out-of-price-range setting for the great unwashed; check. So, now what? How does filmmaking collect all these elements together to create frisson, passion, excitement … love?
In any human relationship where there is love, there is often ugliness. As we open ourselves to vulnerability, there’ll be things that we want to leave in the shadows or collect in a box that we keep under the bed that gathers dust. Things that we leave to fester like pustules begging for popping. Then when the hoarding becomes unbearable we erupt. There’s shouting, blood-flushed faces, and bogey-crying as the contradictions of rage and love course through our psyche. Our words don’t come out right. What we want to say is slurred. We don’t wait for the other to finish their sentences. We don’t say all we wanted to say in the heat of the moment. There are messy trades of insults that strike at the core of the most tender spots of our persona. Yet we get none of these raw interactions between Malcolm & Marie. In hindsight, their exchanges are the stuff we wished we’d said in the heat of the moment. Their fall-out is as contrived as their co-dependent relationship and sadly this rubs off as indifference in any connection to the message of the film – if there is one.
One important detraction includes the camera’s love affair with Zendaya. Someone outside of that film-set loves Zendaya. The camera lingers over Marie. All. The. Time. When she makes the mac-n-cheese; when she discards the red-carpet dress; when Malcolm is literally eating her ass; when she takes a bath, even when she’s on the bog. I get it. Zendaya is the star and we’re trying to make a grown-up of her, but throughout most of the film Malcolm is fully clothed. It’s not until the end when we see him dress for slumber that we see him in any state of undress. But there are no lingering shots over Malcolm’s buttocks, there are no close-ups of his thighs. In an age in cinema that (even I have to say is) really is seeking to push against prescribed roles for actresses, this constant gaze over Marie is lascivious.
There are discussions outside of Malcolm & Marie about the age difference between the actors and characters, but this is addressed subtly in the film as we accept that in that world this pairing is commonplace. An indictment of our gendered ideology, if you will.
Other detractions include the film’s run-time. Malcolm & Marie, at an hour and 46 minutes is needlessly long. Oooh, and because they lost me in the believability of their relationship from the start, this gave me time to look at the mis-en-scene. One thing that niggled me was that the bath scene continuity was out of synch. I wished the bathwater could decide whether or not it was going to be cloudy or clear. Or is that where the line was drawn on the camera’s drool over Zendaya?
Shot in lockdown under strict conditions, Malcolm & Marie is a microscopic look at the film industry as much as it is about a volatile, flawed relationship. It’s an analysis of filmmakers and the minutiae of their egos. It’s a questioning of the rationale filmmakers use to mine the lives of others that may be used as script-fodder. It’s an observation of the importance of the connecting industries in the business such as film critics. It’s about the hierarchy of deference that must be meted out accordingly. It’s an insight into a relationship that seems as though it cannot come back from the hurtful things two people can say to one another. I just wish that they’d managed to convince me of it all.
By Jennifer G. Robinson, founder of Women Of The Lens Film Festival
Malcolm & Marie is now on Netflix