(Credit: Netflix)

Malcolm & Marie Review: Sam Levinson's brutally honest reflection of faltering love

“I value mystery. The unknown. It’s what supports the tension of a relationship and forces us to be the best version of ourselves. The ‘what if’ factor.”

Shot in a monochromatic profile and being one of its kind, according to director Sam Levinson, the film’s secretive production and filming have taken place during the current pandemic. Levinson had worked with Zendaya previously on Euphoria and wanted to make most of the in-house production by following all Covid protocols. John David Washington soon joined this two-member cast and helped recreate the magic of the script on-screen. The film is heartbreakingly beautiful and shives a piece of reality in the viewer’s faces. 

The film features a filmmaker, Malcolm, and his girlfriend, Marie, who come home from Malcolm’s premiere night for his film Imani and wait anxiously for the critical response to his newly released film. Soon the evening of conversation turns out to be a test of love when Malcolm and Marie’s feelings emerge to the surface as they confront each other with tumultuous issues and anguished questions about their relationship. The constant introspection and re-examination of the relationship make it more disturbing than psychological thrillers, posing visceral and emotionally scarring questions.

The fate of their relationship remains unknown, which adds to the general claustrophobic nature of the film. They are paranoid and insecure, flawed and relentless, trying to reach out to each other while continuously refusing to budge to feed their own ego. It is a brilliant study of human nature when posed with conflict and criticism. To understand the film completely, we must break it down carefully and quite ironically. Malcolm would be super mad if he read this review, so keeping that in mind, let us see what Levinson has to offer. 

The film has been shot with a monochromatic aesthetic which sets in a melancholy mood. It also helps us view the character in shades of black and white rather than in colour, which presents their naked, undecorated selves. Malcolm has never received a positive response in his life before Imani, and he is overwhelmed by the amount of praise he received and the number of hearts he moved. Grooving to an upbeat jazzy number, he proclaims his love for a resplendent Zendaya, who, as the dutiful girlfriend, clad in a shimmery slit-dress and high heels, is seemingly exhausted yet prepares mac-and-cheese for him. 

While Malcolm raves on about the “white woman from LA Times” who desperately tried to be politically correct yet let her prejudices influence her conversation with Malcolm, Marie is frustrated. Zendaya’s bored expressions are spot-on, even when a seemingly aroused Malcolm kisses her, her half-smile throws him off-guard. She finally reveals the reason why she is mad at him. Malcolm thanked everyone in his speech except her. This is the fulcrum of their argument throughout the film and the lack of gratitude and the lack of possessiveness that bordered on indifference. 

From the very beginning, the viewers’ discretion is being challenged by the constant dichotomy presented by the characters. One feels sorry for Malcolm, who is at loggerheads with his own sensibility. He does not want his films to be viewed via a political lens that reeks of colourism and sexism; he does not want to be “the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins”. 

Here is a man who is in love with his craft, wanting to bask in the exalted glory of being able to put forward a story about a recovering drug-addict but fails due to the identities he is associated with — that of a Black man trying to portray the horrors of the American healthcare system and response to mental health problems. When Marie is dismissive of him and criticises him on the biggest night of his life, she seems a little heartless and solipsistic. 

However, Levinson does not allow the viewers to breathe as he immediately presents Marie’s story on a platter. She is a recovering drug-addict whom Malcolm found and rescued on the streets and a failed actress who has been assigned the homely duties. The chaos within her needed an outlet, and she desperately wanted the role of Imani but could never make it to the auditions due to the internal conflict she was embroiled in within her own self. When she tries to cleanse herself of all the verbal insults hurled at her by Malcolm by immersing in the bathtub, he walks in and starts making hurtful confessions about his past lovers. He attempts to shatter her beliefs that Imani is based on her; this, however, does not destabilise Marie who believes that the success of the film is immaterial given the amount of hurt he caused her by presenting a twisted and mauled version of her life on-screen. 

One cannot side with either Malcolm or Marie. They get involved in intense and toxic arguments at one point and can be seen passionately making out in the very next instant. There are some genuinely fun moments, including a visibly angry Malcolm marvelling at the brilliance of mac-and-cheese while arguing with Marie. Or when they try to communicate their feelings to one another by using upbeat songs or jazzy tunes. Their argument arises from entitlement and the refusal to see one another for who they are. The camera pans beautifully from one end of the room to the other, maintaining the fluidity and realism, never making it seem like an act. 

The actors are absolutely brilliant. They scream, they laugh, they fight, they love, they kiss, and they live and breathe, presenting a reality that is too ugly to live through. It is honestly a scathing journey that the viewers have to undertake along with the characters in this nearly two-hour-long film. The atmospheric tension is suffocating, their poetic monologues intoxicating. It scarily mirrors every single person in a relationship where they are forced to confront their own flaws, including narcissism, lack of gratitude, the ability to take things for granted and self-entitlement, which might cause the partner to lose the course of their dreams. 

It is a charming and moody portrayal of a millennial relationship caught in the flux of passion and profession and the inability to save one another despite the intensity of love and passion. The final sequence is perhaps the most poetic. They need each other despite the amount of pain they cause to one another. They cling to each other for support. The quiet “thank you’s” are enough for us to deduce that. The new dawn probably harkens a new beginning in their relationship. Or perhaps a solemn end. One can only imagine. 

“It’s not until you are about to lose someone that you pay attention”

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