Malcolm & Marie focuses on the events of a filmmaker (John David Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya) after they return home following a celebratory movie premiere. As the couple await the critics’ responses, revelations begin to surface, testing the strength of their love.
★ ★ ★
The film is the first feature to have been written, shot, edited and sold in the 2020 coronavirus pandemic – an impressive feat when the same challenges have resulted in many other releases being delayed.
The opening sequence of Malcolm & Marie undeniably kickstarts the tone that will ensue for the rest of its runtime. The first thing you’ll notice is that the colouring is in a high-contrast black and white and echoes the style of the 50s – this is because it was shot on Kodak Double-X stock. Not only does this produce a beautiful picture, but when combined with the choice of architecture (an almost-all-glass house set in the middle of nowhere), it seems difficult to ignore the aura of suspense and insecurity. It’s no surprise then that the opening moments bear an uncanny resemblance to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, though instead of snooping on a couple getting ready for a formal event, the audience instead watches as Malcolm and Marie both come home from their fancy premiere, and Marie heads straight to the bathroom, adjusting her clothes and taking a seat on the toilet. In both films, the ajar doors and unspoken words speak volumes about the pairs relationship, or how they feel around each other on the chosen night. The difference in moods is further amplified as we watch Washington dance across the room and enjoy the high of his movie premiere, whilst simultaneously, Zendaya steps outside for a cigarette and seemingly doesn’t share the same joy.
The film is essentially a series of massive monologues, and echoes that feeling of watching a play. Whilst love might be the point of the film, it is essentially hate that wins – the script is so striking that the hurtful words from Malcolm’s mouth will catch you totally off guard, and Washington’s delivery is particularly gut-wrenching. Whilst Marie switches from fiery, to vulnerable, to catatonic as quickly as a yoyo. The best thing about Malcolm & Marie is indeed the casting of this pair, who offer an incredible amount of range and believability to their characters, though this is no surprise given their impressive biographies. Washington and Zendaya are completely stripped back on their isolated set and it’s an invigorating watch to see them battle out their power shifts, as they express the deepest and darkest parts of a fragile relationship.
What compliments the acting most is the painfully pretty cinematography. Malcolm & Marie does a good job of making you feel uncomfortable, as if you’re a fly on the wall who shouldn’t be sharing the same space – but with the amount of close-ups and lingering shots on the pairs intimate moments, how else are you supposed to feel? What’s more, the framing and stylistic choices add to the highly emotional tone; fast-paced cuts to boiling pasta and knives aggressively striking the chopping board signify Marie’s rising tensions and passions in the beginning, whilst the later positionings of Marie indicate her vulnerability and damaged state. Marie stripping down for a bath and removing her makeup layers demonstrates her loss in power or fight, and there are other times where she is seemingly framed as if she is in a box; vulnerable and exhausted, she sits on the bed at a distance, with the door frames either side as if the world is closing in on her. Washington’s approach is a bit different as when he’s angry, he’s shot in the wide open space of the surrounding fields, putting on a show of aggression as he shouts and punches at the grass on the ground. Then there’s images of the two kissing, juxtaposed with shots of their quieter and darker conversations which further pull you into the toxicity and uncertainty of their feelings towards one another.
Malcolm & Marie truly is engrossing and impressive; it’s an intense and intimate look at the private moments of a fierce relationship, and Zendaya and John David Washington are explosive together. It’s certainly worth the watch just to see their displays of emotions. That said, Washington’s numerous long-winded monologues about film critics feels too over the top; not the performance but the script itself, as you just can’t shake off the feeling that Levinson has a sting in his tail about a real-life past encounter. Frustratingly, Malcolm & Marie does have the tendency to feel a bit repetitive and this can at times, make it feel like quite an exhausting and intense watch – you’re trapped in an argument that you can’t even get out of with a conclusion that isn’t wonderfully satisfying.