To Love is to Suffer in “Malcolm & Marie”

Keeping with the theme of love this month, I bring you, Malcolm & Marie. This volatile drama shot beautifully in black and white by director, Sam Levinson, stars Zendaya as Marie and John David Washington, as her partner, Malcolm. It would be a stretch to say that I’m recommending this film because I’m pretty mixed on it at the moment. Beyond that, there were more than a few things that I didn’t quite think worked, but what I will say is that it was an experience I won’t soon forget. Dialog heavy, full of firey social commentary and gender politics, not to mention what I would argue was the most forceful devouring of a bowl of mac and cheese that I’ve ever seen committed to film, this screenplay gave its viewer a lot to take in over the course of its nearly two hour run time. Some of it satisfying, some of it confusing, all of it, contentious.

The brief premise is this: a couple comes home from a movie premiere in which Malcolm, a filmmaker, has been widely praised for his work. The night then devolves into a series of arguments between the couple in which bits of their relationship are revealed, exposing the cracks, resentment, hurt, and shortcomings of both parties. I wanted to review this film because I think what it manages to do well is capture the essence of what it means to be someone’s partner. Love forces us to be vulnerable, to compromise, to listen, to appreciate and acknowledge, to admit when we’ve done wrong, and most importantly, to apologize when we’ve hurt the other. This film shows us explicitly, and oh so dramatically, how messy navigating all of this can be.

What Zendaya and Washington bring to the screen in terms of acting chops is unparalleled, but for me, it’s the screenplay itself that’s a bit unbalanced. It oozes with emotion, intentionality, and sharp opinions, which, on the one hand, is great. I love a work of art that knows itself and conveys its message unabashedly, but I’m not entirely sure that’s what is going on here. I fear that instead of allowing these actors to breathe life and authenticity into their characters, Levinson has created them to be the vessels through which he can voice his own grievances with the film industry, critics in particular. Then, there’s the issue of his characters being black. Levinson, a white director, has on the surface, written a script full of his viewpoints about being a black filmmaker in white-dominated Hollywood, which I struggled with as well. It’s clear by the many name drops Levinson has written into Malcolm’s dialog that he knows his film history, and I give him credit for that. The man has done his homework. I’m just not sure it gives him the authority to write from the perspective of Washington’s character.

It was quite clear to me, given Levinson and Zendaya’s history together—he’s the creator/director of the HBO series, Euphoria, on which Zendaya also stars—that she understands his vision a bit more than Washington. She appears more adept at embodying his script having worked with him prior, where Washington’s performance at times felt contrived. To be fair, they’re both unbelievable actors, who undoubtedly command attention anytime it’s their turn to speak, but it’s in the delivery and nuance where Zendaya seems to rise above, at least for me.

Speaking of when it’s their turn to speak… I was a little confused about the structure of this film in terms of dialog. Most of what plays out on screen is the couple engaging in a night-long argument, a ballet of back and forth verbal assaults. What struck me as strange and exhausting was that they happened one at a time for several, uninterrupted minutes. First Marie would rant to Malcolm who stayed more or less silent, then the tables would turn and he’d yell at her while she remained mute—despite eyes like daggers—and we never break from this structure for the duration of the film. Real-life fights, at least in my experience, don’t often play out in such a way. People interrupt each other. They don’t sit through six, seven, eight minute-monologues during which they’re continuously cut down to size by their partner. I understand that the film isn’t necessarily meant to evoke reality, but I found it hard to suspend my disbelief for as long as I was asked to in this case. I found this type of delivery draining, and perhaps that was the point. Maybe we’re supposed to feel as depleted as the characters do by the end.

While I can’t deny the beauty in this film—the cinematography, the music, the performances, and the setting are all incredibly lush—I’m not sold on the film’s message, and I think it’s because I don’t know if the film knows entirely what that message is. This isn’t to say that I didn’t like the film, because there were parts I found extremely relatable and powerful, in Zendaya’s performance especially. My favorite part of this film is her ending monologue, in which she speaks about needing to feel appreciated for the role she plays in her and Malcolm’s relationship, how heartbreaking it feels to be dismissed and taken for granted, and how much a simple “thank you” can really mean at the end of the day. It’s an emotional and memorable performance that seems to sum up the feelings she’s been trying to articulate all along. Washington too feels his most authentic in this final moment when he finally relinquishes the “thank you” Marie has been after since the start of the film, and probably for a long time before that.

Malcolm & Marie is available right now on Netflix.