By Zoe Talbot
Filmmaker Malcolm Elliott (John David Washington) has just returned from his movie’s premiere with his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya), so what could be amiss on the greatest night of his life? “Malcolm & Marie” follows the couple’s intimate relationship as truths arise, insecurities become clear, and art’s relationship with life is debated.
The film, shot entirely in black and white, is simplistic but brought to life through its cast. Due to pandemic restrictions, this movie is solely Washington and Zendaya — a bold but beautiful decision that allows their characters to be passionate and unfiltered as a heated argument unfolds in a single night and a single setting. The monochrome cinematography alongside the minimal cast and crew is the perfect combination for a piece to examine two individuals — their thoughts, actions, intentions — without getting bogged down by flashiness or crowded by others.
Marie is a vulnerable and angry ex-actress complemented by headstrong and passionate Malcolm. When Marie reveals that she is upset because Malcom didn’t thank her at the premiere, the argument spirals and the two of them begin arguing about Malcolm’s movie inspirations and ideas. Marie is broken, feeling left behind as Malcolm celebrates a character that she believes shares too many parallels with her own life, including devastating relationships with addiction and recovery in her early 20’s. Would his work be anything of substance without her presence or her life? Is this “spiritual theft” really how authenticity is captured?
Zendaya breathes life into the character Marie, delivering each of her monologues and icy retaliations with an attitude and heart that few others could muster. Even when silently moving about a room or smoking on the porch, her exasperation is transparent. She is the perfect counterpart to Washington’s indignant filmmaker, intimately exploring parts of one another that they hadn’t uncovered throughout their five years of being together. While the two’s arguments can be engaging and full of tension at times, they seem to circle around one another; it creates a feeling as if nothing ever gets resolved. There are intervals of an actor ranting while the other simply watches, creating a sort of soliloquy feeling that seems out of place. Regardless, the scenes are all delivered sensationally. Malcolm and Marie are unapologetically real with one another, and the relationship portrayed is messy, unsure and bittersweet.
Alongside the couple’s relationship, “Malcolm & Marie” takes many opportunities to explore film as an art, the work of film critics and how film acts as a form of expression without always being political in its message. At times, this can feel like a distraction from the pair; Malcolm monologues about the industry and its evils several times before the couple returns to their personal argument. Even so, it is a very clear depiction of how this artist and his art intertwine. His film is an amalgamation of his own experiences, and that includes Marie, but they each feel so entitled to this success that lines are blurred and it goes unsaid that inspiration and originality come in many different forms.
Both Marie and Malcolm are dejected and bad tempered on their own, and while the two support one another, they do not seem to be improved by the presence of the other in their worst moments. While the tension and drama is likely to make you think about graciousness and creation, this portrayal of a relationship leaves you wondering what the takeaway was — or if, like Malcolm advocates for, it is just a form of expression. They are certainly not the pinnacle of romance or anything close, but there are instances where it is clear they care for one another. Things as simple as making the other mac ‘n’ cheese while infuriated, or as life-changing as rehab, have helped these two to grow together in a way that makes the audience wonder if this night of vicious quarreling will be something they make it out of together.
Intimate, thought-provoking, and beautifully captured, “Malcolm & Marie” is the type of film that you’d watch introspectively in your bedroom on a late night in. The couple is constantly vulnerable, yet fiery, making for a film that I’d personally feel strange watching with anyone else because of how personal it feels. Despite this, there is still a connection to be made to this unique experience through how we create and are inspired by the people around us. Regardless of how we express ourselves, originality and art stem closely from life and our own experiences, and the film captures this graciously intertwined with two individuals who care for each other just as much as their crafts.