It’s not so easy to tell what’s going on with this filmmaker: after settling scores with the internet mob in his disturbing thriller grotesque “Assassination Nation,” he delivers with the chamber play in elegant black and white MALCOLM & MARIE now an argument-love drama that has been reduced to the greatest possible extent, but which is no less biting. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Malcolm & Marie (USA 2021)
The very self-confident director Malcolm (John David Washington) and his partner Marie (Zendaya) come home one evening after a lavish film premiere. Malcolm is blissful: Press and audiences have frantically celebrated Malcolm’s latest work, a film about a drug-addicted African American woman, and he seems to be destined for great success. But the evening takes a sudden turn when Marie reveals her disappointment to her partner: Malcolm forgot to mention Marie in the acceptance speech – a faux pas that the young woman cannot easily forget. Revelations about the relationship between the two then come to light, which puts their love to the test.
Writer and director Sam Levinson (“Assassination Nation”) These days, hardly anyone would be seriously surprised that not only in There is a lot of controversy surrounding his latest work “Malcolm & Marie”, but also outside of it – more precisely: in the press. The 36-year-old filmmaker is giving her a hard time. At least that’s the bottom line when you look at the many preliminary reviews from overseas. There was a real shitstorm shortly after it was made available for the reporting journal. The reason: the way in which the protagonist embodied by “Tenet” star John David Washington – an aspiring director in the film – is outraged by the media, especially the critics. Names of major daily newspapers and online portals are mentioned and in one case Washington or Levinson is particularly clear in his script when he chooses “the white woman from the LA Times” as the ultimate enemy of his hatred. If you also take into account that Sam Levinson was once severely reprimanded by Los Angeles Times critic Katie Walsh for his previous work “Assassination Nation” (she called it “a botched attempt at social commentary”), it makes sense to assume that Levinson would actually have personally worked on the writing staff here. But when you notice that Malcolm in “Malcolm & Marie” is not upset about a negative review of his film, but rather a positive one, it becomes clear: the positions here are not that simple; and the reduction of the film to its existence as a critic’s reckoning film is far too short-sighted.
Between the heated arguments, Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) become closer.
If you add up all the scenes in “Malcolm & Marie” that involve Malcolm mocking the critics in some way, you get just twenty minutes. Twenty minutes in a 106-minute film – the priorities obviously lie elsewhere. Namely on the interaction between “Greatest Showman” star Zendaya and Denzel Washington offspring John David Washington, who have an argument that is both tender and highly explosive at all times, which cools down several times within its 106 minutes and then escalates again. At first glance, one might think it was forced to stage a chamber play-like argument drama lasting almost two hours; After all, there is a risk that the characters will end up going around in argumentative circles over such a long period of time – the film takes place in real time until shortly before the end. It is a great art to counteract this by designing dialogues as an author that provide impulses that drive the plot (ergo: the argument) within this argumentative atmosphere, without letting the characters tip into either the ridiculous argument-seeking or the unnecessarily submissive. Art, which in this case comes from the main duo. Zendaya plays the obviously offended girlfriend of a filmmaker who is in the limelight and who was denied a really big career, but under this insult she hides many facets that impulsively come to the surface. She is not jealous, but expects the recognition she deserves. A character trait that establishes her Marie as a self-confident contemporary – and which she contrasts with a vulnerable, insecure and deeply depressive side more than once throughout the film. Zendaya’s Marie is a highly complex character. Preventing her erratic way of arguing and arguing from tipping over into an indecisive, contradictory attitude is due to the actress’ tact. An Oscar nomination should be within reach.
“Zendaya’s Marie is a highly complex character. And the fact that her erratic manner of argumentation and arguing does not tip over into an indecisive, contradictory attitude is due to the acting sensitivity of this actress. An Oscar nomination should be within reach.”
Contrasting her with a completely opposite character might have caused even more points of friction, but would have suppressed the attractive core of “Malcom & Marie”: The argument, which constantly takes place at eye level, is not only characterized by mutual criticism of each other, but even more so of the affection that flashes through again and again, of the moments in which Malcolm and Marie look in the same direction, making it all the more painful when it becomes clear that this accumulation of conflicts can tear apart such a tightly knit unit. The aforementioned lack of appreciation between both parties is not a superficial conflict, but a deep-rooted problem that massively calls into question mutual respect for each other. At the same time, an argument as intense as this one can only be emotionally upsetting if a basis has been created. And Zendaya and John David Washington deliver these in the moments of deepest passion, in which it becomes clear that the affection of these two lovers is far from extinguished. But it is not for nothing that Sam Levinson portrays his Malcolm as an impulsive contemporary who is strongly influenced by external circumstances – and so his Malcolm fluctuates between remorseful realization and the ego-driven demonstration of his own market value, which he not only values himself, but also his girlfriend has to prove again and again.
Taking a breather on the veranda…
And with them the critics, which leads us back to the original argument – that “Malcolm & Marie” is about so much more than settling accounts with the reviewing journal. The fact that this still makes up a significant part of the film is consistent when you look at the characterization of a figure like Malcolm. A man who, with every new presentation of an interpersonal mistake, causes his partner to question his strong ego, which in turn is largely linked to his recognition as a filmmaker. If this supposed hold on a character who is constantly emotionally fluctuating that night is further shaken, as this filmmaker is suddenly judged and condemned not only as a person and friend by his partner, but also by the press as a director, Malcolm is left with nothing. And so it’s not surprising that his heated argument goes from the hundredth to the millionth as he moves further and further away from the actual point of attack – criticism – when he tries to wipe the last bit of ego off the floor with metaphorical scratching and biting what was left to him. An act of defiance and desperation that – performed by an extroverted, eloquent man like Malcolm – also says a lot of truth about the perception of film and pop culture and calls into question the mechanisms behind film evaluation itself. Something that the dialogue doesn’t force, but which falls off casually, simply because this Malcolm is so damn eloquent. And this doesn’t just apply to the thematic segment of criticism, but also finds its echo in various socio-political excesses in which Malcolm exposes the duplicity of those around him, but – and this is particularly important – also of himself.
“The argument, which takes place constantly at eye level, is not only characterized by mutual criticism of each other, but even more so by the affection that flashes through again and again, by the moments in which Malcolm and Marie look in the same direction and it is therefore all the more painful when it becomes apparent that this accumulation of conflicts can tear apart even such a tightly knit unity.”
Shaped by the effects of the Corona crisis, “Malcolm & Marie” was created under minimalist conditions. Zendaya and John David Washington carry the film entirely on their shoulders. At least one of the two can be seen in every scene, the third main character plays the production itself. Cameraman Marcell Rév, who was also responsible for the visual design of Levinson’s “Assassination Nation”, relies on highly elegant, high-contrast black and white images the only backdrop of a noble luxury apartment and plays with camera perspectives that do not always make it immediately clear whether the characters are inside or outside. The house’s winding architecture also makes it very easy for Rév to transfer the couple’s emotional distance into his pictures. Just like the ironically very jazzy score (Malcolm gets upset about the term “jazzy” used to describe his film in one of his numerous monologues), which optimally underlines the tension and relaxation of his characters. It is simple, audiovisual means that refine “Malcolm & Marie” and thereby never take the focus away from the essentials. And the essence is so much more than a mere accounting.
Conclusion: Director and author Sam Levinson creates a highly complex drama in his simply but beautifully staged chamber drama “Malcolm & Marie”, which is supported equally by its excellent duo of lead actors as well as by the always lifelike and intelligent dialogues and an outstanding ability to observe interpersonal interaction.
“Malcolm & Marie” will be available to stream on Netflix from February 5th.