Writer/director Sam Levinson teamed up with his HBO series “Euphoria” cast and crew and filmed two-hander “Malcolm & Marie” under the radar after the production of the second season of his series was shut down due to the pandemic (He also produced and released two breathtaking special episodes of the series lately). In the press release, Levinson ensures that the film was produced under strict COVID protocols and reveals that the film was inspired by his real-life experience, in which he forgot to thank his wife at the premiere of his directorial breakout “Assassination Nation.”
Shot in visually arresting high contrast black-and-white on actual 16mm Kodak stock by “Euphoria” cinematographer Marcell Rév, “Malcolm & Marie” opens with Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) return home from a successful premiere of Malcolm’s directorial debut, and the long night starts to play out. Through their dialog and body language, we begin to sense something went wrong at the premiere. Later, we’ll find out that Malcolm thanked everyone from the leading actress to the crew to his school teachers but didn’t mention Marie, and she is not pleased especially Malcolm’s film is about the struggle of a teenage drug-addicted girl that is basically based on Marie’s experience.
But does it really that simple? The endless, exhausting argument throughout the film’s 106 minutes runtime is about to cut deep into the couple’s relationship and the way they treat each other and themselves. The two have been a couple long enough to know each other weak and soft spots, and they target those spots and the fight is getting personal and abusive. Marie accuses Malcolm of being narcissistic with his ridiculous ego. Malcolm strikes back by attacking her always being cold and playing the victim card, he also mocks her wrongly assumes the film is all based on her despite the figure of the teenage girl is in fact based on many women Malcolm had relationships with before Marie.
“Malcolm & Marie” then raises a big question as Malcolm is waiting for film critics to release the reviews: are we able to define filmmakers’ creative intentions from their works? Malcolm’s film is praised by critics from Variety to IndieWire to LA Times as “cinematic tour de force” and “genuine masterwork,” yet he feels that his film has been celebrated for the wrong reason. Malcolm complains the film is over-analyzed by “white lady from LA Times,” and suggests that film critics should only analyze their subjects from visible elements. Being called the next Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, or John Singleton, Malcolm, who really wants to be the next William Wyler, insists that filmmakers’ motivation is very likely to be wrongly connected with their personal identity. But why film can’t just be a film even it’s made by Black filmmaker? In real life, Levinson’s “Assassination Nation” was panned by some critics for its social commentary when it first released in 2018. Could it be the reason why Levinson uses Malcolm as his fictional avatar to mock film critics back? It just really hard for me not to connect his history with “Malcolm & Marie,” but this is exactly what Malcolm is angry about. And putting these pieces together simply makes my viewing experience confusing.
However, this is not the biggest problem with Levinson’s film. “Malcolm & Marie” has a compelling start that drags the audiences through the first 30 minutes, then the dialog starts to circle back to a similar topic over and over again. You might disagree and argue that conversation in real life are often repetitive as the film does, but the film begins to lose its dramatic rhythm from here. The lines that come from these two good looking lovers feel like sentences written in the script instead of words spoken by living characters.
And that’s a waste of these two talented actors. With “BlacKkKlansman” and “Tenet,” Washington continues to build his promising resume with his powerful performance and shows us how vulnerable Malcolm really is. Nonetheless, the stage belongs to Zendaya as she vividly adds emotional depth to her character. Despite the continuous dialog throws back and forth between the two, she lands on her strongest beats in some of her quietest moments.
Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie” is defiantly going to receive complex and divided reactions. The film cleverly portrays a beautiful bad romance while exploring how people trap themselves in a relationship bubble. Although Malcolm (or Levinson behind the camera) says critics shouldn’t judge the film besides its visible evidence, that is still a burning question throughout the hundred years of cinema history. Let’s agree to disagree on this.
- Distributor: Netflix
- Production: Little Lamb and The Reasonable Bunch
- Director: Sam Levinson
- Writer: Sam Levinson
- Producer: Ashley Levinson, Sam Levinson, Kevin Turen, John David Washington, and Zendaya
- Cast:John David Washington and Zendaya
- “Malcolm & Marie” opens in select theaters Jan 29. Available on Netflix Feb. 5, 2021
Read the review in Chinese