Writer, Director: Sam Levinson
Cast: John David Washington, Zendaya
Streaming Platform: Netflix
The first thing we are told in meditation is to not think. The second thing we are told is to not worry about not-thinking. If a thought comes, acknowledge it, don’t welcome it, don’t dwell. If a thought is leaving, let it go. Don’t fixate, but don’t fixate on not fixating. It’s a bit of mental gymnastics to get to a point where you are comfortable with the conscious weight of every passing moment, giving the mind the capacity to turn iron heavy fixations into paper weight feathers.
Malcolm & Marie is a bit like that in two ways: One, it is as if the characters, two mercurial lovers—Malcolm, a film director fresh off a rousing premiere, and Marie, a model who didn’t make that transition into actress— flit between thoughts and accusations without dwelling or waiting for narrative catharsis, moving from one cutting monologue to the next. I was almost lulled into it till I realized these were monologues that pass off for dialogue.
Second, as a viewer, I felt that conscious weight of every passing second, because the film follows them through this one night, this one hour and forty odd minutes before they go to bed. Every second I am watching is a second being lived, without flashback, or flashforward. Marie smokes 3 and a half cigarettes over the course of the night, and you get to watch every strand of tobacco turn to ash and smoke. The visuals help. By shooting in black and white, every possible chromatic distraction is muted away. Walls of the house have no paintings, but there are hardly any walls, most of them replaced with glass. Even the big paintings that would go on top of a bed are replaced with a sheath of glass looking onto the grasslands beyond. Malcolm’s white shirt, and Marie’s metallic crinkle dress complement the medium. It shows that to make a black and white film is not to shoot in colour and then turn it monochrome, but to costume and set design it consciously.
But the format of shooting as if in real-time is that it puts immense pressure on the writing—to give context to everything taking place, from past lovers, to past afflictions. This context also mustn’t feel too exposition-heavy otherwise these moments will begin to feel too constructed and as a viewer, as a meditator, we will suddenly be snapped out of the illusion.
Sam Levinson is not consistent here, but this is also a function of the story. The film begins with tension that morphs into a fight that needs a backstory to make sense. Slowly, the skeletons in the cupboard— heroin, heart shaped tubs, old lovers, jealousies—all take center stage. It begins to feel like a competition of despair, where every monologue ups the other, guarding one’s demons and parading those of the other. It tires very easily even as the language is cutting, precise, almost anthropological. As the monologues leak into dialogues, the film loses its grip. But then, Levinson casts a masterful stroke—that last monologue of Marie is a thing of devastation. Malcolm watches and for the first time, his eyes well up. I was in a daze that I forgot Zendaya was actually speaking—something that demands attention and not feeling.
Washington and Zendaya are appropriately mercurial. Washington embodies the frantic vibe of a passionate, but appallingly self-reverential artist. (He begins celebrating, “We fucking did it!” and his very next line is “I wrote, directed and premiered a film.” The We-s turn to I-s with as much verbal as visceral ease.) There are moments that play his passion for pranks, and you don’t take him seriously, but then there’s a naughty little chord that plays out in the background and you realize, in that moment, even the film doesn’t take him seriously. Zendaya plays Marie with morosity, some of which doesn’t crackle the way her fluttering lips in an emotional scene do. She’s the only one to call Malcolm’s bullshit, and she does so with a scathing disregard for his ego that mirrors his scathing disregard for her pity-fueled self-image. They keep biting into one another, literally and otherwise. In the middle of a blowjob Marie hisses at his male-gaze. She calls him an emotional terrorist, a spiritual thief. In the middle of chomping down on his mac and cheese, he calls her, with a full mouth, delusional. Theirs is a love that is predicated on hate.
The problem with the film is the problem with most films that use words to condense life experiences into events. The film feels performed. I did not feel the raw pain of the now-viral Marriage Story breakdown. I did not feel their erotic longings for one another, the chemistry almost felt narrated, guided. The intensity is theatrical, and at no point did I feel the viciousness as more than throwaway dialogues. It is the kind of film where everything is articulated with such alarming clarity, ferocity and density, that it leaves little space for feeling. So when I did feel something move in the final moment, it felt like a miracle, a feeling, a meditation with the last pause, “Ah! So that’s what they are all going on about!”