It is an unwritten dictum that artistes are bound to be raving lunatics or bordering on the precipice of madness. This 'madness' is essential to live in a manner that separates them from robotic societal conventions: it's freedom. They cherish instability and hold it close while kindling it. This notion that madness infuses life with danger, tragedy and drama, thereby birthing great art, now seems as ancient as art itself.
Director Sam Levinson's latest offing Malcolm and Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya in the titular roles is based on this premise. The artiste here is writer-director Malcolm Elliott who returns home triumphant after a warm reception to his film's premiere. His girlfriend Marie, on the other hand, is sullen. The reason behind her dourness appears to be simple enough: he has forgotten to thank her in his speech, but like much else it isn't so simple.
It is gradually revealed that Marie feels even more hurt as she believes that the film's lead character Imani was based on her because the film mirrors her own past struggles with drug addiction and infidelity. Malcolm obliterates her argument while cruelly listing all the other women in his life who germinated ideas that piece that film together. But it is not just about this film; Marie is convinced that her madness is the life source that Malcolm's work steals from. He may be the artist that creates but she is the muse he is trying to imitate.
In totality, Malcolm and Marie is a case study on psychological warfare. The tension between them is reminiscent of two animals circling each other, trying to wound the other's minds only using all artillery handy in their arsenal: gaslighting, manipulating and logic. As Marie lies in the bathtub in tears, lips quivering and on the verge of a break down, Malcolm relentlessly continues to stab her with his words reminding her of the nadir of her days as an addict. The next minute we find him in a tearful declaration of his love for her. It is an accurate illustration of how emotional abusers continue to control their victims: he is only breaking her down into pieces to console her that as broken as she is, she will have his love for her. It convinces the victim of their helplessness without their abuser.
The actors have been handed reams of dialogue that are more often than not monologues. The conversation glides from issues plaguing their relationship and revelations of infidelity to race, cinema and all in its purview. We immediately sense that Levinson is being showy and clever with the heavy-handed literature that is almost academic in its nature.
Regardless, the discussions are still interesting. In a scene, the two characters argue the need for the film's lead actress to take her shirt off. Marie feels the scene was unnecessarily sexualised while Malcolm sees no political commentary behind it, the actress had her top off and that was that. He questions that if Marie, who herself is scantily clad in the sequence, were on film, would she be sexualised too or would it just be a woman in her natural state?
Malcolm openly finds film critics distasteful. To him they are too brainy, "pedantic", and always eager to conflate their political ideas with film especially when the director is a black person. This is ironic in more ways than one. Firstly, it does much to reveal Malcolm's lack of self-awareness. He is after all exactly the same things he accuses them of. And Marie believes that his colour is in fact intrinsic to him and the art he leaves behind. Secondly, Levinson himself is white which has landed him in a soup after the release. Previously having worked on Euphoria, critics have pointed out that Levinson appears to have appointed himself as a spokesman of the black experience.
Keeping aside all the intellectual and sharp verbal sparring between them, the core reason for the fight remains the same. Malcolm is a self-absorbed filmmaker who sees little beyond his work and depends on Marie in distracted ways that are convenient to him. And Marie sees this and longs to be a more equal partner in his world. But ultimately he is the storyteller and even if she is a tough match, she is only the fuel. He is the fire that burns and projects.
Shot entirely in black and white, Malcolm and Marie is stunning to look at. Levinson has clearly made an objective choice to stage and block Malcolm and Marie meticulously like a play. The narrative is structured so as to make it appear as an artifice. Every argument has the two of them roaming circles around varied subjects ranging from race and feminism to film criticism, each argument separated by an interlude – mostly of Marie leaving the house to smoke a cigarette as a song plays in the background. There is a definitive pattern.
The dialogue construction lends heavily to this theatrical effect. For two people who are metaphorically throwing daggers at each other, they rarely ever truly lose control over their words. The lines don't feel as real, the emotion isn't as raw. The carefully built sentences they are saying sound like carefully built sentences that were written on paper. There is a singular moment when they actually shake their fists and scream how much they hate the other, but even that seems bereft of emotional intensity.
A lot of the emotion that does feel heartfelt in the film is thanks to the lead actors. Zendaya's Marie carries the weight of a difficult past and her unfulfilled desire to become a serious actress comfortably. John David's Malcolm is a contradictory, defiant, selfish albeit good filmmaker and a halfhearted partner to Marie. Both are manipulative to a degree, both mercurial.
Despite their easy intimacy and closeness, it is interesting how cautious they are of each other. In a scene that leads to the only shocking moment in the film, Marie grabs a knife, silently implicating she may hurt herself if Malcolm doesn't acquiesce to her demand for her pills. Malcolm looks worried but even then is wary of her, never fully trusting what she says. At one point she vanishes from the house and Malcolm is searching for her but not urgently, walking slowly with care as though she may pull a trick on him any second.
The wordy contest between the two is constant but doesn't escalate except for the scene with the knife. We sense the pressure building but the dam never comes to burst. The thing is, there is one problem at the root of all the problems between Malcolm and Marie: he loves himself and his work more than her. And this is an established truth staring at us right from the first scene. In that sense, there is no deeper revelation that remains to be made about the characters or their dynamic. The two gnaw and dig into each other throughout with exhaustive dialogue, but we already know what the problem is. There is nothing new that we learn. Maybe if they fumbled their words a bit more, there would be space for some real feeling to seep in.