Malcolm & Marie (2021)

Madly in Love.

Filmmaker Malcolm (John David Washington) is having a good night. The premiere of his debut film as writer and director is a success. Coming back to his luxurious apartment, he’s a little drunk and high on his self-regard.

His girlfriend, Marie (Zendaya), is distant and clearly sore at him over something — but she still makes him mac ‘n’ cheese. It is revealed that during his speech at the premiere, he neglected to thank her. This kicks off an argument that sees the couple dueling for the rest of the night.

And that’s your lot in terms of plot, but as smart viewers know, plot is only part of the whole story package, and Malcolm & Marie does a lot with its simple mechanical story progression. Writer and director Sam Levinson, Assassination Nation (2018), who lenses the proceedings in crisp, glowing black and white, delves into a number of interesting areas: the relationship between art and artist, film and audience, and — most thornily — creator and “muse.” We dip into the way marginalized creatives are boxed in by their most recognizable traits as he rails against a (positive, to be clear) review that insists on viewing his film through a racial lens. We marvel and mock the artistic tendency towards ego as he, clearly convinced of his own genius, talks about how he wants to be part of a larger “conversation” alongside Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins (but he really digs William Wyler).

The artist and the muse

But the key question in play is who gets to tell what stories, and importantly who gets to tell our stories. It eventuates that Malcolm’s film is about a woman struggling with drug addiction, and Marie is a recovering addict. He avers that the film is based on a number of women he has known and dated. She counters that he pursues relationships for their story potential. He wanted her to audition for the lead role, but she refused. She has supported him in his career. He took her to Narco Anonymous meetings and therapy sessions. Back and forth, thrust and riposte. What does the artist owe to his inspiration? What do romantic partners owe each other? Where are the boundaries, and do they even exist?

No easy answers are forthcoming, and it’s fun, albeit potentially challenging, to take measure of whose side you find yourself on at various points in the proceedings (compare Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, another Netflix release focusing on a creative and personal partnership in crisis).

Produced during the Covid-19 pandemic under strict health and safety protocols, the film is restricted to one location and just two characters. As a result, it’s somewhat stagey (in fact, I’d love to see a stage adaptation), but the black and white photography by cinematographer Marcell Rév adds old-school Hollywood gloss, and Levinson’s mobile camera keeps things from getting too static. The performances are dynamite, with both John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman (2018), and Zendaya, The Greatest Showman (2017), nimbly keeping their footing as the power dynamic shifts and obviously enjoying the sharp, layered dialogue. Zendaya, in particular, is fantastic, building on the work she did with Levinson in his show Euphoria (this film was conceived after Euphoria’s production was shut down due to the pandemic).

‘Are we no longer fighting?’

Essentially a stripped-down actors’ showcase, Malcolm & Marie makes an asset of its obvious production constraints, pushing performance to the foreground in a way that major studio films rarely do in the current clime. You can argue that the circumstances that dictated its production also dictate its exhibition and distribution, which is why it’s sitting there on Netflix. Personally, I would have loved to see this thing on the big screen, but even on the small, it’s a little triumph of a film.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

Malcolm & Marie is currently streaming on Netflix