Malcolm Elliot (John David Washington) is in good spirits after returning from the premiere of his new film. In his company is his girlfriend Marie Jones (Zendaya). This couple occupies the entirety of the 1 hour and 46 minutes' runtime of Sam Levinson's Malcolm & Marie. No outside force will interrupt. No other character will make an entrance. They are the Adam and Eve of Malcolm & Marie, isolated in a house away from the bustle of the city.
From the moment this couple makes their entry on the screen, a sense of disconnection sweeps over our minds. Malcolm, with a drink in his hand, dances and celebrates the success of his screening. But Marie is clearly not on the same page. She is happy for him, but there is something else cooking in her mind. This detachment is seen in the compartmentalised staging. Malcolm fills his glass in the bar while Marie sits in the washroom. He says she looked beautiful tonight, and she responds with, "I can't hear you!" When she moves into the kitchen, we see her boxed through the window. The camera tracks Malcolm to the other side of the room – from outside – to accentuate the distance between them.
"Marie, what you angry about? Marie. Marie? Marie!" The words are edited like a pressure cooker about to blow off. It is equivalent to prodding a wild beast with a sharp knife. Of course, things will get ugly. When have things sailed smoothly at a remote location? The quietness, the loneliness gives a chance to ugliness to perform in the spotlight. Amid busy streets and cramped apartments, the noise of madness is often dissolved. Hence, filmmakers rely on the silences of seclusion to revel in trepidation. Disasters register loudest in the quietness. That is why horror films are often transported to sequestered cabins.
In Malcolm & Marie, horror germinates from lack of communication and bottled emotions. This is a problem that has been plaguing couples for a long time. They temporarily conceal feelings of jealousy, brush aside insecurities and recall a list when engaged in a fight. Malcolm and Marie dig up their past sour experiences to knock down one another. For instance, Malcolm may have acted with composure after finding out about Marie's infidelity. The actual reaction surfaces during the fight. Similarly, Marie may have casually shoved aside the fact that Malcolm didn't thank her in the speech, but later it becomes one of the triggers for the fight.
Their brawl is structured in a scene where the camera takes turns in following Malcolm and Marie. She rests on a door while he dances around the room. Let's consider the starting point as the moment when both of them share the same screen. First, we follow him all over the room. After reaching the starting point, the camera rests with Marie. Then again, it follows Malcolm. This sequence is repeated for some time. This is a one-on-one match. Both participants get the opportunity of stabbing the other. In a fine scene inside a bathtub, Marie's lips quiver as Malcolm reminds her of an incident. Basically, these "incidents" are nothing but declarations of their individual sacrifices and commitments to the relationship. Levinson films the quarrel in a way a real couple would argue, i.e., with heat and humour. The unceasing bellow gives heat. An irresolute Malcolm with a tie, tossed around his neck, asking, "Are we no longer fighting?" provides humour. This hilarity is always felt by the third party, a position that here is occupied by the viewer. The pair fighting is invariably serious.
However, Malcolm & Marie stumbles due to its careful execution. The staging, the blocking is meticulously planned. In a film that asks its characters to go haywire, this planning dilutes the experience. You can see the calculation in the design when a ranting Malcolm moves in and out of the house while Marie lies on a sofa. The movements and the shift in positions (from one room to another) comes across as diligent organisation. Malcolm & Marie needed to inject unpredictability in its filmmaking. It needed to free its actors from constraints. Take 12 Angry Men, in which the men were allowed to freely locomote in the room in the most natural way possible. Never did the blocking became too evident or on the nose to the spectator. Alas, with (noticeable) detailed precision, Malcolm & Marie fails to captivate or link us with the turbulence of its titular twosome.