In parts reminding you of a kitchen sink drama – think John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter on a fiery, rambling monologue in Look Back in Anger – and at times reminding you of Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole’s (Scarlett Johannson) heated arguments in climactic moments of Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, or Ingar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie flows like dead roots springing from a wasteland, sans colour, sans life, but still filled with love; a love which envelops the screenplay from the beginning to the end.
The global pandemic hasn’t been very kind to most and, regretfully and hatefully enough, it has led many to get more intimate in their relationships. Such intimacy has played a role in the making of films like Malcolm & Marie, which was shot during the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown with only a 22-member cast and small production costs.
The nuances of quarantine film-making are apparent but not attention-seeking. Even though the film stands on the shoulders of Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) alone – viewers will never feel the need for an intervention from a third character despite its many uncomfortably tense moments.
Instead, it takes on the location of the film and the largely powerful screenplay as an ally. The black-and-white tones of the film make it seem ageless, while the camera-work is almost voyeuristic at times, conjuring feelings within the audience – that maybe they shouldn’t be here, that this is all too scary, an all-too-real unravelling of emotions.
The events of the film are simple to grasp even if the emotions talked about are excruciatingly complex – Malcolm, an up and coming ‘black’ filmmaker, returns home after the premiere of his new film in a jovial mood, expecting to celebrate with Marie, his girlfriend for half a decade. Marie seems distant and restrained while Malcolm, very Jimmy Porter-like, cannot stop gushing about the bygone evening, and belts out long speeches to an audience of one.
The tension is apparent right from the get-go and Marie, looking stunning in a cocktail gown, quietly starts making mac and cheese for Malcolm. Her simmering angst shows as she uses the knife to slice the cheese with rough gashes, as Malcolm approaches her affectionately, sexually. The immediate catalyst for Marie was that Malcolm, in his speech at the premiere, misses out on thanking Marie, his muse for the film, which propels the night into one of harsh truth spillings and bitter revelations – which all seem lifted from just another day of yet another real-life relationship.
Call it the perks of quarantine film-making if you may, but in Malcolm & Marie, the availability of limited space works as a boon for the script – defining the claustrophobia of the relationship as ugly facts, bitter truths, hurtful comments begin to spiral into the story – as the couple argues, screaming, venting, sinking, attacking and most importantly loving one another through it all.
Halfway into the film, when Marie simply lies on the sofa after a bath as Malcolm fumes and philosophises on cinematic art, you empathise with Marie – watching helplessly as Malcolm screams his opinions into the empty night air after reading a good review of his film by the LA Times. The moments presented in the film are relatable – in a way that we don’t desire to relate to them, in a way where moments we generally shrug under the carpet called love are raised and brought to life.
A film like Malcolm & Marie urges you to pick up that carpet, pull out the issues, excavate the skeletons and lay yourself bare – in your most vulnerable, intimate space. This upchucking of issues makes you take a gamble on the person you love, and most importantly, re-evaluate the relationship.
In Malcolm & Marie, where other than the powerful dialogues, the songs used (songs like William Bell’s ‘I Forgot to Be Your Lover’ and Dionne Warwick’s ‘Get Rid Of Him’) have a voice of their own, Levinson begs for the need for empathy, validation and gratitude in relationships. The narrative is dangerously familiar as often times, we too have found ourselves in relationship spaces where we take our partner for granted, missing out on simple things like saying a ‘thank you’ when it matters the most, and glossing over their efforts to maintain the relationship.
Malcolm & Marie may be a lot of things – a rant on art, the need for ‘authenticity’ in creative expression, the all-important discussion on racial prejudices at work. But ultimately, it is a film which is a reminder to be more mindful, to be more appreciative, to be more grateful for the little things in life – to respect our relationships more, and like Marie says at one point to Malcolm, to remember the people who ground you and hold on to them, to look beyond the tragedy they might appear as, to look beyond yourself, to escape from the clutches of narcissistic ego and for once, appreciate – take a step back, breathe and say, thank you and make it possible to believe in a world where there might be people who simply love you, not because they essentially need you, but because their love for you is much greater than your self-hatred.
The beauty of Malcolm & Marie lies in believing in this unsaid possibility and finally, the creation of a space, where appreciation, artistic or otherwise – however late – holds the power to bring closure in the most important spaces in our lives.
When not found obsessively planning trips or biting her nails during a tense tie-break, Sohinee Basu puts her English major degree to use by freelancing as a writer who loves to look out for the poetry in everything. She can be found as the @teeny_tiny_adult_kid on Instagram.
Featured image: Netflix