by Seth Tew
Self-esteem can be a monster. Feelings of inadequacy or arrogance can make every moment in a relationship a fight for respect and recognition. In “Malcolm and Marie,” the fight goes from personal to relational and back again for its two characters: Malcolm (John David Washington), a breakout film director, and Marie (Zendaya), a former actress and Malcolm’s girlfriend.
For a film named after both its characters, its story starts and ends with the struggles of Marie, whose turmoil is embodied in Zendaya’s compelling performance. After we mentally adjust to the film’s black-and-white color grade, we meet the couple coming home after the premiere of Malcolm’s directorial debut. Marie’s silence suggests that something is wrong, and we soon find out what that something is: Malcolm failed to thank her in his introductory speech, precipitating a night of bitter quarreling between the two lovers.
Malcolm’s film acts as almost a third character, revealing the sore spots of both director and actress. We learn that it portrays a young African-American woman bouncing in and out of rehab to combat her insatiable drug addiction. The director cares passionately for the film and his cinematic voice, ranting at “lazy-ass critics” and citing many a director and film worth the Google. However, Marie is just as personally attached to the film because its plot draws deeply from her own past of drug abuse.
As their argument continues, we watch Marie build her case against Malcolm: he used her life experiences as the basis of his film but cast a different actress as the lead and wanted creative credit so much that he couldn’t bring himself to thank her in his speech. Yet his childhood was happy and carefree, and his filmmaking career has been lauded by all. How can he relate to the struggle and hurt she carries from her past?
Malcolm, more than ready to celebrate his personal accomplishment with his lover, initially attempts to make amends, giving sweet moments of intimacy between the two. Yet Marie’s accusations of his own personal loathing and narcissism eventually push him to retaliate. He describes the gritty details of past experiences with ex-girlfriends and gives his opinion on the root of her complaints: she “loathes herself because of all the guilt and the shame that she can’t let the good in.” His gravedigging brings Marie’s insecurities to the forefront, rotting her repose before our eyes, yet he ends the barrage with a sudden change of tone, telling her “you want control because you can’t imagine that the reason I’m with you is because I love you.”
The couple’s insecurities fuel both their conflict and their love, an emotional rhythm that the cinematography captures beautifully. The depth of field is tight, focused on either one of the characters closely dominating the frame or what lies in the distance. The physical chasm of space in the middle becomes a no man’s land between the entrenched couple. When their attraction to each other builds, the camera closes in on their bodies together, but as their arguing drives them apart, it zooms out to show the reestablished schism.
This visual language also has a third beat in moments of monologic sorrow. At the deepening midpoint and the conclusion, the camera cuts back and forth from person to person, letting the emotional beats impact the viewer as they play out on the actors’ faces.
That said, the film’s script struggles with thematic consistency, and its resolution is underwhelming. As a “thank you” finally comes from Malcolm’s lips, Marie’s “you’re welcome” accepts it, but all is still not well. Are the bitter tirades they screamed at each other earlier now suddenly forgiven?
John David Washington’s performance makes his final lines feel like an obligatory acknowledgment to keep the peace. Malcolm seems to listen to Marie’s complaints primarily so that she’ll stick around rather than out of any actual desire to change his ways. The complex reactions and avoidance patterns both characters bring to the conflict feel authentically human and incomplete. A single fight can only bring transparency, not a fully-realized life transformation, an idea that comes through strongly in the screenplay.
Director Sam Levinson’s past work with Zendaya on the critically acclaimed HBO series “Euphoria” seems to play into her favor. In isolated moments she lacks subtlety, but every rant and painful reminder of her past comes from deep within her. Her delivery has the premeditated nature of a well-rehearsed backstab and gives her silence such texture as she clings to poise through Malcolm’s attacks, a one-two punch of acting excellence reminiscent of her breakout performance in “Euphoria.”
The character of Malcolm and Washington’s portrayal are the film’s main detractors. The bipolar pacing, cyclical plot progression and somewhat pretentious tone (I turned on subtitles to write down all the name-dropped films I didn’t recognize) that his character brings to the film feel justified until we attempt to understand him on a deeper level. When his face fills the screen in moments of tense silence, his demeanor is emotionally ambiguous: indecipherable expressions or glazed-over eyes when actual emotion would make the moment more powerful.
The screenplay seems to suffer from keeping his character distant as well. As a moviemaker, his lifestyle is not immediately accessible to most people, so another aspect of him must be brought forward to give the viewer a way to empathize with and understand his perspective. His cinematically dense diatribes give depth to his passion, but his fight for affirmation is lost on both Marie and the audience, leading us to conclude that he actually has lost his appreciation for his girlfriend in the thrill of personal achievement.
The lack of connection with Malcolm makes him feel hollow and manipulative. All he seems to be is an insecure man living for the approval of people he doesn’t respect and trying to put out a relational fire to get in his girlfriend’s pants, making the artistic sensibilities of “Malcolm and Marie” feel just as shallow and pretentious as he is.
As Malcolm is revealed to be uncompelling, the film begins to feel the same. While the dialogue, creative direction, and delivery shine throughout, “Malcolm and Marie” lacks a sharp enough edge to cut into the hearts of anyone beyond a cinephile.
Seth Tew is a senior Organizational Communications major and an A&E Writer for Cedars. His love for people and art means you’ll typically find him at a local concert or exhibition supporting his friends or performing himself under the musical project Well Read.