Trigger warning: This piece contains details about verbal abuse and gaslighting which may be triggering.
I felt compelled to write about Malcolm & Marie after having read a couple of reviews in the LiveWire inbox that hailed the movie for realistically depicting strains in the relationship between the two sole characters of the film, played by Zendaya and John David Washington. Disturbingly, even Netflix is marketing the black-and-white film by writer-director Sam Levinson about a narcissistic filmmaker and his partner – a recovering addict – as a romantic drama; a ‘romantic reckoning’.
But is this really love? Romance? Or just a brutal depiction of a toxic, co-dependant and abusive relationship? I started it thinking it would be about a couple going through a rough patch, one they would eventually overcome.
Instead, I was treated to an uncomfortable hour and 46 minutes of emotional abuse, manipulation and gaslighting being sold under the guise of romance.
The word ‘abuse’ comes up itself around 15 minutes into the film with Malcolm screaming at Marie from across the house while shoving in mouthfuls of mac and cheese – which Marie made for him after they got home from the premiere of his film. The root cause of the argument? Malcolm, after thanking a long list of people who made the film possible, failed to thank Marie in his speech, or acknowledge her contribution to anyone who spoke to him through the evening.
This is despite the fact, as it becomes clear over the course of Malcolm & Marie, that the film was entirely based on her history with addiction and depression. It also becomes abundantly clear that over five years, she played a pivotal role in making the film happen by working side-by-side in every way possible with Malcolm.
“You’re mentally unstable,” he screams. “F***ing delusional!”
Marie retorts: “Are you actually yelling and belittling me from across this house because you are too busy eating mac and cheese? Do you know how disturbing it is that you can compartmentalise to such a degree that you can abuse me while eating mac and cheese?”
The use of the word ‘abuse’ immediately catches Malcolm’s attention, and makes him put his guard up. “Abuse you?” he asks, with a look as though to say he is, of course, entirely incapable of abuse.
“Verbally abuse,” Marie is forced to say, as though verbal abuse is not problematic at all. Malcolm snidely thanks her for the “clarification” before telling her to “get the f*** outta here”.
This is just one example of the troubling sections that make up the film, as Malcolm and Marie move back and forth between fighting and apologising to one another. The validity of Marie’s argument hovers over it all. It’s clear, as the film progresses, that their relationship has been built over the years on a foundation of power imbalances, unhealthy toxicity and extreme codependency. We see Marie’s quiet anger reach several boiling points, causing her to give Malcolm a small taste of what he dishes out. An indignant Malcolm then nurses his wounds before his mind circles back to the one thing Marie said he felt affronted about, and he then swoops back for another round – this time armed with crueller words than before.
The back and forth is such that Malcolm goes from stating he wants to cut her head off to both of them kissing with passion. If this example alone does not work as a hallmark of a toxic relationship for viewers, perhaps this next one might: In one scene, as Marie tries to get away from the elongated battle of words by slipping into a bathtub for a moment of peace it is a past suicide attempt that is brought up to taunt her as Malcolm questions her sanity and reality while professing violence and love – all within a span of a few minutes.
“You wanna play dirty? Well let’s go,” he starts. “I promise I can hurt you ten times worse. You’re a f***in’ featherweight, a level-one boss. I can snap you like a twig.”
Continuing to gaslight her over her desire for her immense contribution to his film to be recognised – which he reduces entirely to a desire for validation, he maintains that his film had “nothing” to do with her and lists other women he drew inspiration from to make the film. He goes to great lengths to include graphic tidbits of past sexual encounters to get under her skin.
“But you’re an addict, right? That’s what makes you f***in’ unique, right? That’s what makes your contribution so much more significant, right? Get the entire f*** outta here. You’re not the first broken girl I’ve known, f***ed or dated,” he says brutally, before shaming her for her sexual fetishes.
Manic expressions of love follow this tirade meant to force Marie to question ever bit of her self-worth. He reminds her that he doesn’t need her, but loves and chooses to be with her. This comes back around as the film marches on and we see that the two feed of of each other’s love for one another, for Marie too points out that she is the last person standing who can withstand Malcolm’s emotional tirades – an example of which can be clearly seen over his outburst over a positive review for his film by “the white girl at the LA Times“.
Critics seem torn, with some calling the lockdown passion project “pretentious” and others labelling it “amazing” for its take on identity, being a black filmmaker in Hollywood, modern criticism, and the need for authenticity. It has also been rightfully appreciated for its cinematography and the performances of the two actors.
Yet others have called it out for being the abusive film it is, one being sold under the guise of ‘romance’. My takeaway from this mixed bag of critiques is that perhaps it takes having undergone such abuse in relationship – or having seen someone close to them go through it – to truly recognise it for what it is. All this only goes to proves in some ways just how normalised abusive relationships have become for so many people, where ego, revenge and anger play out a greater role, interspersed with toxic neediness.
All through, I rooted for Marie to call it quits – but she never does. As Malcolm wakes up the morning after to see Marie’s side of the bed empty only to find her standing in the garden, an uneasy calm fills the air and you know it’s not over yet. How could it be, the overnight argument is a thorn that makes up a bulk of who they are to one another.
Would she be better off without him? Most likely, but not until she sees it that way and brings an end to their bitter co-dependant love story. And, perhaps if the ‘romantic drama’ had been respectfully marked as triggering for victims of abusive relationships, viewers would have thought twice before entering such a hostile world.
Come for the romance, enjoy the toxicity for free.
Featured image credit: Netflix