Malcolm & Marie

Review by Rich Cline | 3.5/5

Malcolm & Marie
dir-scr Sam Levinson
prd Kevin Turen, Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, Zendaya, John David Washington
with John David Washington, Zendaya
release US/UK 5.Feb.21
21/US Netflix 1h46

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Shot in pristine monochrome in a gorgeous modern house with only two characters, this film feels feel like a stage play, cycling through an extended conversation about a relationship, like a simplified and rather mannered variation on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Writer-director Sam Levinson infuses every moment with soulful rhythms, jagged humour and underlying topicality, keeping the film engaging as the acute dialog continually strikes resonant chords.
Malcolm and Marie (Washington and Zendaya) arrive home after the glittery premiere of his new film. He's high on his success, full of energy, and she's trying to ground him in reality. Marie seems to be upset about something, and Malcolm tries to work it out, but this only makes her more angry. And she's still stewing on the fact that Malcolm thanked everyone but her in his speech, especially since the movie is based on her life. But even when they deal with this issue, there are deeper things they will need to face.
Marcell Rev's crisp cinematography and Julio Perez's lyrical editing create a terrific harmony, launching with an extended shot that prowls outside the house while the characters move at their own distinct paces inside. Malcolm is annoyed that journalists only see his work through the filter of his race. And Marie feels invisible. Indeed, much of this conversation centres on Malcolm and his career. And both resort to cruelty in their comments to each other, while his ego is far more fragile than hers.

Washington and Zendaya are terrific, conveying a fizzy range of textures in their characters and how they relate to each other. Essentially, the clash comes down to the fact that Marie feels like the least important person in Malcolm's life. So when he affirms that he doesn't take her for granted, the atmosphere shifts. Even so, Marie is persistently manipulative, teaching Malcolm a lesson. He may need to hear it, but her attitude is less sympathetic, even thankless. Later, when he launches a riotous rant at the first reviews, there's a wry sense of humour in the way she finds it so entertaining.

There are fascinating thematic points woven through this script, touching on the communal nature of artistic creation, the difficulty of truly seeing yourself and the mystery of loving someone warts and all. The bigger issues feel far more resonant than this couple's more minor squabbles, which seem rooted in Marie's bitter petulance and Malcolm's pathetic self-doubt. So even if the emotions are raw and resonant, this is a bracing portrait of what happens when two people never even try to see things through the other person's eyes.

cert 15 themes, language 9.Jan.21

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© 2021 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall