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Non-Review Review: Malcolm and Marie

The reactions to Malcolm and Marie have been divided, to the say the least.

On one extreme, some critics have been quick to laud Sam Levinson’s black-and-white character study as a surprise late addition to the awards race, a bracing old-fashioned character drama anchored in two compelling performances that interrogates a relationship that never seems certain whether it will implode or explode. It is the kind of film that invites comparisons to works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Boys in the Band or even something like Autumn Sonata: characters trapped in a confined space, with the drama ready to boil over.

On the other extreme, critics have been quick to argue that Malcolm and Marie is an indulgent mess anchored in a grossly unlikeable and shallow protagonist that never digs beneath the skin of its central characters. More than that, Levinson seems to use the film as an opportunity to work through his own issues as a promising (and privileged) young filmmaker who feels like he has not necessarily been given the critical respect that he deserves. Malcolm and Marie is a series of self-serious monologues delivered in the aesthetic of a (very pretty) Calvin Klein commercial.

As ever, the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Most immediately and most obviously, Malcolm and Marie looks great. Shot early in the pandemic, the film unfolds entirely in and around the house that the title characters share. Indeed, as the credits roll, the camera is waiting for them to return home; their car pulls over the hill and towards the house, as if watching the pair arrive unsuspecting into some monstrous trap. Malcolm and Marie occasionally ventures outside the house into the garden, but there is always a sense that space is finite. Even when Marie disappears into the night, she cannot escape Malcolm – or herself.

Malcolm and Marie is not a film about the pandemic. Unlike other films made during the outbreak, like Songbird or Locked Down, the film is not built around the familiar conceit of a virus forcing characters into close quarters with one another. Nevertheless, the spectre of the pandemic hangs over the film. Malcolm and Marie are trapped in a confined space together. Their shared world is small, and they each find the gravity of the other inescapable. Malcolm and Marie is not literally a pandemic movie, but it feels like one.

Part of this is in the way that Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév shoot the film. Rév has worked with Levinson and Zendaya on Euphoria, and there’s a strong sense of aesthetic brashness to their work. Malcolm and Marie is shot in stark black and whites, which adds an element of class and sophistication to the drama, while also suggesting the sort of classical character drama of the mid-twentieth century. Levinson and Rév use light to great effect, playing up sharp contrasts in a way that lends to the movie’s heightened and claustrophobic feeling.

This choice adds to the intensity of the drama, creating a sense that Malcolm and Marie are constantly in the spotlight – scrutinised by themselves or by others. There are points when it feels almost unreal, like the silhouetting of the trees in the back garden that suggest spotlights trained on this shared space, but it certainly adds to the mood and the claustrophobia of this character drama: two people trapped in a confined space, with the contrast turned way up to better highlight their imperfections.

As with a lot of Levinson’s output, it’s tempting to ask when is “too much” with any of this. There are points where Malcolm and Marie feels less like a finished film and more like a film school project. Still, the aesthetic largely works. Levinson and Rév are constantly shooting down tables, through blinds and across halls. The camera often circles familiar spaces time and again, filming its characters through windows or doorways.

While a lot of the voyeuristic and peering camera angles feel somewhat heavy handed and on the nose, they are nonetheless effective. Levinson’s camera circles and spirals within its enclosed spaces, creating a palpable claustrophobia that hangs over the film. By any objective measure, the house and garden shared by Malcolm and Marie is lavish, but Malcolm and Marie suggests that even these spaces can feel like a prison. So much of Malcolm and Marie is characters screaming in houses and back gardens, which feels suffocating in a way that speaks to the moment.

Unfortunately, the drama simply doesn’t work. This sort of small character-driven film should be the most obvious sort of film to make in the pandemic. In practical terms, it requires only a small cast and crew, and it is shot in a single location. Thematic and narratively, the claustrophobia of these sorts of narratives should resonate with audiences even indirectly. Almost every person on the planet should know what it feels like to be trapped, and so these stories should work well – even in the abstract.

It’s a familiar template, and it shouldn’t be difficult to make the template work, especially with two actors as talented and as affable as John David Washington and Zendaya. Unfortunately, Malcolm and Marie fumbles the playbook in a number of very obvious and very glaring ways. Most obviously, the film starts with the emotional intensity turned up to maximum, literally playing out its opening scenes against Marie boiling a saucepan of mac and cheese as if to communicate the intensity of the drama unfolding.

There is very little room for Malcolm and Marie to escalate. There are no micro-aggressions in Malcolm and Marie, just a constant stream of aggressions. Malcolm is introduced ranting at Marie with fevered intensity, and it’s barely a few minutes before the couple have their first shouting match. This puts Malcolm and Marie in an awkward position, where its internal drama doesn’t build. It just awkwardly ebbs and flows. Malcolm and Marie shout at one another. They calm down. They shout at one another again. It is the dramatic equivalent of revving an engine for two hours.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Malcolm and Marie never digs deep into its central characters. Malcolm is self-absorbed and arrogant. It’s a familiar cliché, particularly in these sorts of character studies of Hollywood personalities. Malcolm is a seemingly “great” director, but a man incapable of basic empathy. In contrast, Marie is avoidant and insecure. She walks on eggshells around her lover, a man who is twelve years older than her. Malcolm and Marie never exposes anything about these people that isn’t placed up front in the establishing beats.

It doesn’t help that Malcolm is insufferable. To be fair, Malcolm and Marie understands this. However, that understanding does not make it any more enjoyable to spend two hours with Malcolm. At points, Malcolm feels more like a sentient Twitter feed than a human being. There is a sense in which Malcolm and Marie feels very much like a movie designed for #filmTwitter, which perhaps explains social media’s obsession with it.

Malcolm rambles on repeatedly and at length about how nobody respects the art of filmmaking – about the burdens of being a high-profile filmmaker and the horror of having others read meaning into his art. There are occasional clever and pointed observations, like Malcolm’s gripe with a film critic who can’t distinguish between a Steadicam and a dolly shot, but most of it is just empty clichés. Again, while the film at least seems to understand that Malcolm is a broadly drawn archetype, there needs to be more to him than rhetorical clichés and recycled arguments.

Indeed, there is admittedly something slightly uncomfortable in the extent to which the movie seems to draw from Levinson’s own experiences as a successful emerging filmmaker and showrunner. The film features an extended discussion of how Malcolm depicted a sexual assault in his film, which feels a little bit too much like Levinson grinding an axe with similar criticisms of his own work. This is not necessarily a problem of itself, but the argument is brought up in order to be casually dismissed, rather than treated as an opportunity for introspection.

More generally, Malcolm’s privileged background recalls Levinson’s own childhood and breakthrough, but the film only brings up criticisms of this for Malcolm to dismiss it. Indeed, Malcolm and Marie complicates and obscures these criticisms by tying these familiar elements of Levinson’s biography to a black filmmaker who has had to face institutional prejudice unknown to Levinson. As a result, the conflating of the two seems both clumsy and ill-advised. Malcolm and Marie seems to share Malcolm’s lack of introspection, rather than interrogating it.

Marie is an even bigger problem. Levinson writes and shoots his muse as an object rather than a person. While John David Washington remains in a suit for the film, Zendaya spends a lot of the time wandering around the movie’s claustrophobic sets in panties and wet shirts. Indeed, it’s notable that the discussion of how Malcolm shoots women as sex objects occurs while Marie is presented in this sexualised manner, and Malcolm even points to that sexualisation as justification for his own choices, handily ignoring that Levinson is choosing to shoot Zendaya like that as well.

Even as a character, Marie largely serves as a mouthpiece to talk about Malcolm. She often feels like nothing more a sexy mirror held up to the broadest possible sketch of a man. Marie has her own history and back story, butthe film is much less interested in what she has to say or what she thinks about anything that isn’t Malcolm. Washington and Zendaya do the best that they can with the material, but they are playing caricatures more than characters. Malcolm and Marie are not individuals so much as monologue delivery mechanisms.

And yet Malcolm and Marie is an interesting misfire. It’s committed to what it’s doing, even if the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

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