Malcolm and Marie unravels over one night, in the lives a filmmaker and his girlfriend, who have fierce personalities and convoluted pasts, who have chosen to struggle with each other. I am unsure whether my teenage movie preferences led me down a sugar-coated path of rom-coms, or if the world in general is obsessed with talking about romantic love: in movies, in films, in songs, it is ubiquitous. At one point of time, I reached my personal saturation point for cotton-candied, last-run-across-the-aisle, tearful-confession-of-a-love-I-have-always-felt romantic dramas. And I related to the lyric from a Maroon 5 song, "All those fairy tales are full of shit, / one more fucking love song, I'll be sick".
Over the years, I have moved from rom-coms to relationship dramas (the slightly more realistic version). Hence, it is not uncommon that my screen displays two screaming people tired of each other's bullshit. However, Malcolm and Marie is the kind of arresting cinema that stops you right in your tracks. Shot entirely in black-and-white, it has a single location – a suave, independent house – and it crackles with style. But it is not exactly the visuals that distinguish it from the rest. It is the brazenness of the film to comment on love, life and art. And its commentary is unapologetic.
Kabir Singh begins with a shot that compares love to the ocean, establishing that the film is unabashedly a love story. And the next scene, where Kabir's grandmother narrates a story from his childhood, establishes his nature as a relentless romantic, whose angst and actions are rooted in love, or his perception of love. As Kabir's love story unfolds, it becomes clear that his girlfriend, Preeti, occupies a position quite like the lost doll from his childhood story. She is something to be adored, 'protected' by him, but never treated as an equal. Her consent does not seem to matter when Kabir does several things that are supposed to be romantic. Their relationship is problematic not only because of Kabir's machismo and misogyny, but also because the film does not acknowledge that he is problematic to begin with. According to the film, Kabir and Preeti's relationship is not something that requires critical evaluation. Instead, it is the epitome of love.
Malcolm and Marie operates at two levels, one as a relationship drama (and boy, is there a lot of drama) and the other as a rant on film criticism. The movie provides piercing commentary on filmmaking and identity, and how identity overshadows art. Malcolm drily remarks, "Not everything I do is political because I'm black". Malcolm criticises the whiteness of the critic's lens and the academic, elitist nature of movie reviews, using a range of expletives to describe them.
Are we capable of viewing art without dragging the artist's life, their racial and gender identity, their opinions and their past into the equation? The film is an interesting experiment on what it seeks to discuss, because the director (a white person) ran into trouble for supposedly using a black character to levy his grudges against a real-life critic, Katie Walsh (a white woman).
The film opens with a relationship theme that is all-too-familiar in real life, but not often portrayed on-screen: being taken for granted. Malcolm's forgetting to thank Marie at his movie premiere is only a prompt that opens the more debasing aspects of their relationship. Malcolm brings up her suicidal past, Marie accuses him of stealing her authenticity because he has nothing original to offer. Once the two of them enter the boxing ring, at the start of the night, the fight is relentless, and you truly experience the violence of words and ploughing through someone's insecurities and worst fears. They make up occasionally, laugh together as if to take a break, and start stabbing with even more precision in the next round.
On the flipside, Kabir Singh can be seen in three categories: how their relationship starts, what happens in the relationship and what happens after. In every segment, Kabir is entitled and arrogant. There is no premise for why he falls in love with her other than her physical appearance. The dialogues between them are scarce, and more frustratingly, Preeti has astonishingly few lines, spoken in a quivering voice as if her other actions alone do not convey that she is submissive. This leaves us with a film where the central female role has an utter lack of agency, even going by general Indian movie standards. This film not only shows us that Preeti does not make her own choices, but it has the audacity to say that she cannot.
Marie, on the other hand, is a woman of her own making. She is feisty, indignant, sardonic, and vulnerable. She holds her own, even within her own toxic relationship. She knows her contribution to Malcolm's work and life is immense and is duly angry when he fails to acknowledge it. It is not common even for western cinema to show an angry woman without antagonizing her, and even in her vulnerable scenes, the strength of her character removed from the relationship does not dissipate. Her intelligences dazzles in conversations. When she uses sarcasm and dry wit, she neither prides herself on it nor 'tones it down'.
Malcolm and Marie involves an explosive relationship that is on tenterhooks, but I did not find the movie trying to normalise or, worse, glorify the toxicity of the relationship. Right from the beginning, both the viewer and the characters that delve within the confines of the relationship know that there is a power imbalance, that there are ego clashes, but those are not justified. Marie is still a powerful negotiator in their relationship and her choice not to leave Malcolm after that night cannot be equated with her willingness to endure abuse at Malcolm's hands.
Abusive relationships such as this do exist in real life, and they can be portrayed on the big screen. However, in Kabir Singh, this is celebrated. The film says love ought to be toxic, that physical and verbal abuse are not something that need to be immediately addressed and ended. Harassment has been packaged with substance abuse and sold off as love. This movie has an entirely problematic way to view a problematic relationship.
At the end, Malcolm and Marie jointly make a patched-up ship that has, surprisingly, still not sunk – but should it happen to be obliterated, they will no doubt go down together. And this is what the movie gets right: that even if people end up together in a toxic relationship, without acknowledging and mitigating its toxicity, a happy ending remains elusive to both.