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Netflix’s vivid relationship drama Malcolm & Marie keeps subtweeting itself

It’s a meta-commentary on art, race, and passion that goes too far into its self-analysis

Zendaya and John David Washington move to kiss each other in close-up in Malcolm & Marie Photo: Dominic Miller / Netflix

The big emotions that usually wind up on display in films about complicated romantic relationships make them great showcases for actors’ skills and directors’ artistry. Filmed under strict COVID-19 protocols in one house during the pandemic, Sam Levinson’s new film Malcolm & Marie is an examination of a troubled relationship, à la Marriage Story or Blue Valentine, interspersed with commentary on filmmaking and race. Malcolm & Marie is aesthetically beautiful, and it offers ascending superstars Zendaya and John David Washington a chance to show off their immense acting skills. But while the film is a stylistic treat on the surface, it has very little depth.

The film begins with filmmaker Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie arriving home after the premiere of Malcolm’s latest film. Though Malcolm is celebrating its positive reception, Marie just humors him, upset that he forgot to thank her in his remarks about the film, which was partially inspired by her past as a drug addict. Over the course of the night, Malcolm and Marie revisit long-lingering tensions in their relationship while also digesting the responses to Malcolm’s film.

The movie’s biggest draw is the excellent acting. Washington (star of BlacKkKlansman and Tenet) plays the full spectrum of his character’s passions, flaws, and insecurities with great skill. Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming and the sequel) portrays Marie with the same excellent interiority and vulnerability that won her the Emmy for her work on Euphoria, also created by Sam Levinson. As scene partners who spend most of the film jabbing at each other, the two pull off some great reactionary acting. The most evocative moments are when the camera POV lingers on one partner’s reaction to the other’s outbursts, to show them processing the wounded surprise at how much their partner can hurt them.

Zendaya, with her back to the camera, faces a seated John David Washington in Malcolm & Marie Photo: Dominic Miller / Netflix

The film is also gorgeous, with cinematography by Marcell Rév that presents the film as timeless. The movie was shot in black-and-white on Kodak film, which gives it a glamour reminiscent of classic Hollywood romances. Though the camera often zooms in to capture the emotion on the characters’ faces, there are also wide shots that include one character watching the other, which shows how Malcolm and Marie are perceiving each other, how subjective perception affects the way people act and react even in private moments. Labrinth’s soundtrack of R&B and jazz adds to the classic feel, though it’s most effective when it lingers in the background, less than the musical setpieces. The most prominent musical scene, when Marie plays a Dionne Warwick song to represent her mood, feels more anachronistic and corny than when Malcolm sings along to James Brown.

The arguments in the film are no-holds-barred, with Malcolm especially tending to attack Marie with her most painful moments. The cruelty in Malcolm’s arguments escalates to the point where it’s disrespectful, and uncomfortable to watch both him revelling in getting a win and Marie trying to keep a cool face through the hurt. When the review of his movie is posted, Malcolm reads it aloud: “One begins to question his intentions in revelling in the trauma of his Black female heroine for so long.” While the line is incisive as an observation into Malcolm’s character, it can also be read as a subtweet of the entire movie, specifically the moments where Malcolm’s spouting vitriol at Marie and the camera lingers on her face as she slowly breaks down.

Marie is presented as an enigma. She has great moments where she lets loose, but she’s never really unraveled the way Malcolm is. By the end, we’ve seen his conflict at his identity representation as a mainstream filmmaker, his tendency to pull out a gun in a knife fight/argument, and his selfishness and instinctive cruelty while taking the woman he loves for granted. But we don’t see anything of Marie outside the relationship. Most of her backstory and her perceived insecurities are revealed through Malcolm monologuing at her, rather than through her own actions or dialogue. She’s largely reactionary, and that limit on her character, combined with the film’s tendency to linger on her underdressed body, makes her feel more like an object than a woman.

John David Washington lies on his back on the floor with Zendaya’s legs draped across his waist in Malcolm & Marie Photo: Dominic Miller / Netflix

Whenever Malcolm and Marie aren’t arguing about their relationship, they’re making philosophical statements about race, filmmaking, privilege, centered around the reception of Malcolm’s film and the state of being a Black filmmaker. The commentary around artistic license when taking inspiration from real life and the tendency for white critics to see Black art as inherently political is very interesting, though it makes the movie feel a bit too meta, like it’s yelling at the Hollywood audience.

The racial commentary in particular feels lopsided, with some of it hitting poignant truths, and the rest not exactly landing. One throwaway phrase that lands well is the observation about the difference in privilege between Malcolm and Marie, and how it’s perceived differently by Hollywood elites than it actually plays out in real life. But in another scene where the couple is being affectionate, kissing and laughing while talking about the future issues Malcolm will have to deal with as a popular Black filmmaker, the commentary is clunky and awkward. It reads like it was intended to be a lighthearted jibe at the film industry, but it’s unlikely to work on audiences who aren’t coming to the film with insider knowledge. It underlines how much the film is worth watching for the performances and cinematography, and how many of its questions about the nature of art and love go unanswered in favor of style, glamour, and noise.

Malcolm & Marie is currently streaming on Netflix.

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