Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new love story is here for audiences to see. “Malcolm & Marie,'' a romance film recently released in theaters and on Netflix, was directed and written by “Euphoria” creator Sam Levinson. It stars John David Washington as Malcolm Elliot — a narcissistic, emotionally abusive film director — and Zendaya as Marie Jones — Malcolm’s supportive, veracious girlfriend.
The film focuses on the night after the opening of Malcolm’s new film. Malcolm believes Marie is upset with him because he forgot to thank her during his speech, which begins the biggest fight of their relationship. The actors do a great job of depicting Malcolm and Marie’s relationship, but the screenplay does not express a clear message, which detracts from the excellent acting and direction of the film.
Before “Malcolm & Marie” was released, it was surrounded by two major controversies — filming occurred while cases of COVID-19 were rising across the country, and there is a large age gap between the two stars. Now that the movie has been released, it is very obvious why these two aspects were part of the film.
Filming during the COVID-19 pandemic enhances the movie because it forces “Malcolm & Marie” to feel isolated. Due to the limited availability of filming locations, the film never leaves the house or shows past events in Malcolm and Marie’s lives. This impels the audience to hang onto every word the characters say and the background details within the movie such as the lighting, the characters’ facial expressions and the music.
Even though many films depict romantic relationships with large age gaps because that’s what Hollywood believes is a typical romance, “Malcolm & Marie” actually used this dynamic to portray character development.
Through their conversations, we learn that Malcolm met Marie when she was 19 or 20 and addicted to drugs. Malcolm, approximately 10 years older than Marie, brought her to rehab and helped her get sober. By doing this, Malcolm establishes himself as a caretaker of Marie and puts himself in the role of an older mentor who guides someone on their path. Having the large age gap between them makes Marie feel powerless.
No matter how much she helps Malcolm with his artistic work, he will always look down on her because he believes his age has given him more experience and knowledge. The large age gap and Malcolm’s guidance of Marie to overcome addiction is an important foundation for their relationship.
Based on their arguments, it is easy to see that Malcolm views Marie as someone who needs him — and more specifically, someone who would fall apart without him. Marie knows that Malcolm perceives her this way, which leads her to grow resentful of him throughout the film.
Despite these controversies, the film still has quite a bit going for it. In particular, the film’s technical aspects — including directing, cinematography, set design and the actors’ performances — all stand out.
Levinson created a beautiful film, capturing many shots that could be framed in an art museum. The film is entirely black and white — which not only enhances its visual aesthetics, but also its overall narrative. Black represents the darker times in their relationship — drug abuse, stealing, cheating — while white represents the brighter times — getting sober, working on Malcolm’s scripts together, being intimate. We learn about the ups and downs of their relationship simultaneously. So not only is the film black and white, but the dialogue itself is black and white.
The set design of “Malcolm & Marie” is also a highlight. In the story, Malcolm and Marie are confined to a large but mostly empty rental home that the studio made them stay in while his film was being made. Taking place entirely within this house, “Malcolm & Marie” is cut so the audience never knows the exact layout. This makes the house feel like a giant maze, which is reflective of Malcolm and Marie’s tumultuous relationship –– something big enough for the characters to get lost in, yet they still feel lonely.
Washington and Zendaya deliver great performances. Both convey the dialogue excellently, making the audience feel like they are in the house with Malcolm and Marie — giving viewers an experience similar to watching a play. Zendaya brings a better performance, but that’s mostly due to the failings of the screenplay. She plays Marie excellently, pouring out emotion whenever she is on the screen.
Washington is different. Many of the emotionally abusive things Malcolm says to Marie are executed very well. The audience can feel the pain when Malcolm mentions Marie’s suicide attempt or that he could “snap her like a twig.” The real downfall of his performance are his ongoing monologues.
Whether Malcolm is complaining about reviews for his films or that all art made by Black people is not political, he meanders. This is partially because of the script, but it’s also on Washington for not changing his cadence or his attitude. Malcolm does this quite a few times, making much of the film feel stale and uninteresting.
It is vital to mention the worst part of the film –– the script. A lot of red herrings are thrown into the plot, and it weakens the film. Malcolm’s disdain for film critics, how society interprets art, what authenticity really means — these are interesting ideas, but the script doesn’t do a good job of explaining how they connect to the overall plot.
Many of these topics are close to the hearts of artists, so it feels like Levinson is venting through Malcolm — especially since the script fails to reveal why these topics are necessary to the story. On the other hand, the film is at its best when focusing on Malcolm and Marie’s relationship. Therefore, when it side-steps that plotline to focus on other topics, the film becomes confusing.
The ending is a great example of this. Malcolm and Marie spend most of the movie arguing inside the house and then eventually fall asleep. In the morning, Malcolm wakes up alone, scrambling to find Marie. He finds her outside, then the screen fades to black. The credits roll while playing “Liberation” by OutKast and CeeLo Green.
It’s an interesting conclusion, but the audience is left asking, “Liberation from what?” Is Marie liberated from Malcolm? Are Malcolm and Marie liberated from their past demons? Is the film industry liberated from white supremacy and patriarchy? Are filmmakers liberated from the idea of authenticity?
The audience doesn’t know, and the film doesn’t either. Leaving the film inconclusive and with something to talk about is nice, but if you bring in a smorgasbord of ideas with no real focus or new ideas, it leaves the audience feeling empty.
Unfortunately, this film goes for style over substance — focusing more on what it looks like than how it makes people feel. Definitely don’t watch this for Valentine’s Day with your boo. It’ll ruin the night. But if you want to see something pretty with great performances despite a subpar screenplay, turn on “Malcolm & Marie.”