Malcolm and Marie (2021)
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
When thinking of romantic dramas that are heavily driven by dialogue between two love interests, as well as the intensity that ensues between them, the evergreen Before Sunrise trilogy (1995) immediately comes to mind, capturing the vulnerability and realness of the relationship between Jesse and Celeste. On the other side of the spectrum is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), portraying a bitter and frustrated relationship with just as sharp and resentful dialogue. Sam Levinson, well-known for his work on HBO’s Euphoria, has decided to venture into this niche circle and bring his own take by portraying a strained romantic relationship in the film Malcolm & Marie. Notably, the film was the first Hollywood feature to be written, financed, and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. It stars John David Washington and Zendaya, Levinson’s Euphoria collaborator, as a filmmaker and his girlfriend finding themselves in an impassioned verbal sword-play over the course of one night.
Malcolm & Marie commences with Marie Jones and Malcolm Elliot returning to their Malibu home after the premiere of his film about a struggling black female drug addict. While Malcolm celebrates the audiences overwhelmingly positive reactions to tune of James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City,” Marie remains unfazed. The tension ensues once a displeased Marie confirms her distress comes from Malcolm’s failure to thank or acknowledge her in his premiere speech. From that point, Marie's silent rage reaches several boiling points, intermixed with Malcolm's relentless gaslighting, verbal abuse, and emotional rants, which result in a turbulent struggle between the two that lasts the entire evening. This ongoing battle triggers Malcolm & Marie’s emotional climax, and Zendaya’s best performance in the film, where Marie gives a monologue in which she confronts Malcolm for taking her for granted and his failure to acknowledge how their sincere and genuine love for each other was the true inspiration for his film. The end of Malcolm & Marie finds the titular characters standing quietly outside the house, implying that the two have made amends - at least for the time being.
The most visually striking aspect of the film is immediately noticeable with Levison’s choice of shooting on black and white 35 mm film, and thus emulating the distinctiveness of German expressionism and film noir. In Malcolm & Marie, the black and white contrast is used to amplify the disparity between its leading characters, providing a crucial focus on the dialogue between them. While the movie promises to follow the footsteps of realist and heavy dialogue-based films about relationships, like Before Sunrise and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? preceding it, there is a certain kind of repetitiveness that ensues once the movie reaches its twenty minute mark that doesn’t allow the film to live up to its true potential. The repetitiveness comes from Malcolm and Marie’s “fight and make up” pattern which, even until the film’s end, never actually leads to anywhere significant in the story. Nonetheless, this aspect did add a certain sense of realism by highlighting the importance and value of listening, as well as talking, even in the most emotionally draining relationships, such as Malcolm and Marie’s. However, this sense of realism is undercut by the script itself which strives on pretentiousness and the “replicas you couldn’t think of in the heat of the moment but you carefully construct when you reminisce the whole argument in your head” monologues. When you lose realism in a film that is based on dialogue as much as Malcolm & Marie is, regardless of the outstanding performances of its leads, you lose the audience itself. With all of its potential, Malcolm & Marie fails where dialogue-focused films usually succeed and neglects the importance of relatability for its audience.