Malcolm & Marie
This two-handers limp narrative is salvaged by intriguing dialogue and strong performances
Having showcased a unique voice with his films Another Happy Day (2011) and Assassination Nation (2018), Sam Levinson looked to be a promising filmmaker, but both films failed to congeal as a whole, leaving a rather patched narrative in its wake. It wasn’t until Levinson made the switch to TV with HBO’s Euphoria (2019-) that his style and ideas clicked. It was there that he launched a new stage of ex-Disney Channel star Zendaya’s career, earning her an Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the second season of Euphoria was postponed indefinitely. Having a necessity to take advantage of his actors and momentum, Levinson and his crew shot two “special episodes” of the series, making a creative use of a small cast and setting, and also made a film on the side. This film, Malcolm & Marie (2021) has now hit Netflix, proving to be one of the few films conceived, shot, and released during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Malcolm & Marie takes place entirely during one night in an LA home. Malcolm (John David Washington) is an up-and-coming director who has just premiered what might be his breakthrough film. He comes home from the premiere with his wife Marie (Zendaya), who is slightly disgruntled with Malcolm for having forgotten to thank her at the premiere.
As with the special episodes of Euphoria, Malcolm & Marie proves to revolve around a continuous conversation, with the forgotten ‘thank you’ as the catalyst used for Levinson to play around with characters and dialogue. The film is also immensely inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1966), using the same template of a continuous night and conversation showcasing the tensions and frictions within a relationship. The fact that Malcolm & Marie is shot in black-and-white only cements this connection, almost like a blunt admission from Levinson of how the Mike Nichols film was a major inspiration.
As with all of Levinson’s films, the technical aspects are absolutely stunning. There is a spectacular use of cinematography, particular one long tracking shot around the outside of the house that becomes the opening scene. Levinson has also become adept with his choice and use of music in the film, using old and new songs for his characters to communicate with. It proves to be a creative incorporation of an aspect of film that many directors simply use to give ambience.
Zendaya has already proven to fit nicely into the creative world and directing rhythms of Levinson, and she is great in Malcolm & Marie. The American actress certainly digs up some of the aspects and beats from Rue, her character from Euphoria, but they are nevertheless effective when applied to Marie. I was more surprised with David Washington, however, who I was worried was getting pigeon-holed into stoic and silent roles such as in BlackKklansman (2018) and Tenet (2020), but he showcased a different tempo of emotional intensity in Malcolm & Marie. I was pleased to see him branch out from the acting beats he had accustomed us to, he even delightfully utilizes a sense of comedic timing and delivery to further distinguish his character from his previous body of work. It proves to be a promising turn that will hopefully have casting directors reconsidering the range of David Washington.
Levinson is clearly much more fascinated with dialogue and how he can use it to comment on multiple issues as well as explore characters than narrative. This was certainly the delightful case with the special Euphoriaepisodes and can be seen apparent in Malcolm & Marie. The conversations on screen range from the purity of filmmaking and art, to the hypocrisy of critics (touché), the history and scars that addiction can leave (a common and personal theme with Levinson’s projects), and gender roles in modern society. These are all fascinating to listen to and Levinson uses his two characters to make convincing counterpoints to each side of an argument. Much as with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? when one character convinces you of their side of the argument, the following response by the other makes you switch sides. It is a kind of intelligent crafting of argument and dialogue that makes plays and confined scenes so enjoyable to watch when in the hands of talented writers.
Levinson is great at crafting his dialogue, but fitting it in a larger narrative is perhaps the biggest weakness in Malcolm & Marie. When you have the benefit of an entire first season of a series to establish characters and dynamics, you can play around with form and style, as with the recent episodes of Euphoria. However, with the longer runtime and shorter narrative scope of a film, you are more constrained. Levinson struggles to maintain a momentum and steady rhythm of conversation, essentially breaking up the conversations between our leads into a series of blocs, separated by quiet moments of reflection or wardrobe changes. This tactic was also used in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? by having the arguing couple take breaks and speak with their house guests as a moment to debrief. However, herein lies the crucial difference between both films, Malcolm & Marie doesn’t have a series of side characters that the leads can go and continue their conversations or introspections with, thus making these apparent breaks in dialogue extremely blunt and apparent. They cause the tempo of the film to stop and start in an uncomfortable way that breaks the spell of the performances and style. As a result, the film might feel longer than it really is, resulting in the final blocs of conversation to garner less intrigue and attention from viewers and thus for the sensitive finale to lose some of its vigor.
In the end, Malcolm & Marie triumphs in the sense that it was an experimental film using the constraints of COVID-19 as a way to exercise and implement creativity. Levinson is able to put up on screen much of the strengths he attuned in Euphoria, but loses himself with the magnitude of needing to keep a climbing momentum. However, the strength of the blocs of dialogue, along with the great delivery we see from the performers and some delicious stylistic choices, still make Malcolm & Marie a worthwhile watch.