It’s a film with a cast of two, shot in black and white, set exclusively in a single house. It isn’t hard to guess that this one was entirely conceived, written, filmed, edited, and released during the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet — in a pointed contrast with Locked Down — the film itself has absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic. Oh, and it’s a film with a black cast that isn’t about racial trauma? Even better!

Malcolm & Marie comes to us from writer/director Sam Levinson, alongside John David Washington and Zendaya, all three of whom are also producers here. Washington plays Malcolm Elliott, a writer/director who just finished his debut movie to instant critical acclaim. Zendaya plays Marie Jones, his longtime girlfriend.

I feel compelled to add that these are literally the only two people in the entire movie. There are no voice-overs, no Zoom calls, no phone calls, and no side characters or cameo appearances whatsoever. It’s 100 minutes with these two characters and nobody else. I can’t remember the last time I ever saw a film take such drastic measures, but such are the pandemic times we live in. I digress.

Anyway, it’s 1:00 AM and Malcolm and Marie have just returned home from the premiere of Malcolm’s film. Malcolm is of course on Cloud Nine, but Marie’s emotional state is considerably muted. Malcolm can tell that something’s wrong, but Marie wants to leave it off until the next morning.

But of course Malcolm pushes her to explain, or we wouldn’t have a movie. And the two of them might not have had the longest and most painful fight of their relationship.

The catalyst is that when Malcolm made his big speech at the premiere, he thanked basically everyone… but he neglected to thank Marie. This oversight is further complicated by the fact that the film in question was heavily based on Marie’s life story. Of course Malcolm says it was more complicated and many other influences were involved, but the story of a twenty-year-old woman who fights her way through drug addiction to turn her life around sounds an awful lot like Marie’s background.

Furthermore, why wasn’t Marie cast in the lead role? She could’ve easily brought her own life experiences to the role that was practically written for her already, and Malcolm himself states multiple times that she’s a talented actor. Malcolm argues that it’s because Marie had already decided to give up acting and she didn’t have any real drive to audition. Marie argues that it’s for the same reason he didn’t publicly thank her at the premiere: So he could take all the credit for the movie and not share any degree of authorship with his girlfriend.

Put simply, what we’ve got here is a no-holds-barred fight between an auteur and his muse.

(NOTE: That “muse” link has a particularly emphatic content warning, talking about sexual assault in great detail.)

John David Washington is of course an unending font of charisma. Appropriately, Malcolm is explosive and expressive in making his point. By contrast, Zendaya is well-practiced at appearing sexy yet disaffected — she has the uncanny ability to appear blank and detached, but always with the distinct impression that there’s some complex unknowable calculation going on inside her head. (see also: Her work in the most recent Spider-Man films) As such, Marie takes a more subtle approach. It’s hard to know exactly how she takes all the verbal abuse hurled her way, and you’ll never see the knife coming until she’s slipped it between Malcolm’s ribs.

The two conflicting personalities clash superbly off each other, and it’s easy to see how the two are constantly pushing each other into louder and angrier shouting matches. I’m sorry to say that Washington and Zendaya have far superior chemistry as opponents than as lovers, but that’s kinda the point. After all, one of the most pressing questions throughout this entire film is the matter of whether they’ll break up by the end of the film. And whether they really should.

Mercifully, this isn’t just 100 minutes of two people shouting at each other. We do get a few merciful interludes in which Malcolm and Marie set aside their differences long enough to make out, though coitus inevitably interruptus when one of them asks another question and a whole new fight breaks out.

The filmmakers are also fond of using song breaks, with a long and eclectic list of wonderful songs to break up the screaming. My personal favorite example is a certain Dionne Warwick needle drop — throughout the whole song, Malcolm and Marie sit in total silence, both of them waiting to make the first move. And the whole time, Ms. Warwick is busting Malcolm’s balls.

Another highlight comes when an early review for the film comes out. This means that Malcolm finally has another target for all his rage, as he goes on a breathless and virtually uninterrupted ten-minute rant against the critic who wrote the review.

The kicker? The review was positive. And it was still enough to send Malcolm into a rage-filled tirade. I won’t go into any more spoilery details than I already have, but suffice to say this is a huge problem that Malcolm has.

He always has to be right. He always has to be in control, most especially where his work is concerned. He’s physically, mentally, emotionally incapable of de-escalating any difference of opinion. Though to be fair, that might be expected of someone whose profession means that he can’t make the movie, secure financing, do anything his way, or really do much of anything without an argument.

Moreover, Malcolm is a college-educated filmmaker with exhaustive knowledge of film history and film theory. So naturally, he’s got some detailed and strongly-held beliefs about the purpose and process of creating art, and he tends to look down on anyone with differing notions. Especially from those who don’t seem to know as much as he does.

That said, it bears mentioning that Malcolm came from a well-to-do upper middle class family. And he made a film about a woman recovering from drug addiction. This is definitely something he doesn’t know everything about — he sure as hell doesn’t know as much about it as Marie does, and he’d never know nearly as much about it without her. Not that he’d ever admit to any of that.

I might add that identity is a huge factor of the ongoing argument throughout this movie. Does it matter that Malcolm is a straight man who made a film about a straight woman? Did it matter that David O. Selznick was a white Jewish guy who produced Gone With the Wind? Did it matter that Moonlight was a movie about a gay man, written and directed by a straight man? And would any of those movies be the revered classics that they are if they had been directed by someone of a different perspective?

In Malcolm’s mind, these questions are wholly irrelevant distractions from the deeper meanings and artistic merits of the films themselves. After all, the characters themselves are only fictional constructs. Cue Marie, piping up to say “Well, this one isn’t entirely fictional, so yes it all kinda does matter.”

The title of “auteur” is typically applied to white guys like Spielberg, Coppolla, the Coen Brothers, and so on. Still, Malcolm could easily be in a new up-and-coming class of black auteurs, among the likes of Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, John Singleton, etc. I might further add that critics have been blowing this particular color of smoke up Malcolm’s ass all evening, so of course it’s all fresh in his mind. Ditto the possibility that an entire world of critics and cinephiles will be calling him an auteur if and when his career blows up.

Yet even a black auteur is still an auteur. And historically, auteurs have typically demanded a near-dictatorial level of power and control over every stage of their films. Often at the expense of their cast and crew. A notable example is Alfred Hitchcock, who famously said “Actors should be treated like cattle.” This would also be the same Alfred Hitchcock who ruthlessly destroyed Tippi Hedren’s career when she refused his sexual advances. And that’s after all the abusive shit he subjected Hedren to on the sets of his films.

So how does that bode for Marie?

Of course an auteur would have a much easier time if his muse would simply shut up and stay in the background. A fictional muse doesn’t demand credit or compensation, but Marie isn’t fictional and she absolutely does. At the very least, she demands some measure of respect as a human being and gratitude for everything she’s given and sacrificed for Malcolm. He says that he loves her, but Marie needs some proof of that beyond the satisfaction of his own emotional needs and sexual desires.

To be fair, Malcolm counters this by saying that he was there every step of the way through Marie’s rehab and recovery. But was that really all for her benefit, or did he just keep her around so he could write the screenplay? Speaking of which, there’s one segment in which Malcolm reels off all the women he’s dated and slept with, all of whom contributed to the initial idea of his screenplay before he’d even met Marie. Yet Marie herself fails to ask the question that if Malcolm has spent so much of his adult life dating various broken and drug-addicted women, what the hell does that say about him?

I could keep going on for ages. The clash between them is literally as long and complex as the film itself. Suffice to say that what we’ve got here is a clash of egos. Marie thinks that Malcolm is getting too big for his britches and she’s the only one who can bring him back down to earth. Malcolm thinks that Marie is ignorant of what it means to really create something and she’s ungrateful for everything he’s given her. And the both of them simultaneously love and hate each other so passionately that it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the two of them will propose to each other or kill each other by the end of the runtime.

Typically, when movies have such a small cast and they’re limited to such a small set, I tend to complain that it feels more like a work of live theatre than cinema. (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a recent example.) Not this time. A lot of that has to do with the black-and-white presentation, which somehow adds to the intimacy in a way that live theatre never could. But mostly, it’s the camerawork. The film is loaded to the brim with immaculate shot compositions, expressive camera pans, intimate close-up shots, meticulous edits… the list goes on and on.

Films like Malcolm and Marie are the reason why I don’t give grades or numerical scores in my reviews. Is it a good movie? Should you watch it? Will you enjoy it? Well, that depends on whether or not you enjoy watching these two particular characters shout at each other for 100 minutes at a time when any rational person would be asleep.

The best I can say is that it’s a superbly constructed film about a long and messy argument between two compelling characters. Though taking the COVID-imposed restrictions into account, I’d say it’s a damn fine effort. It’s worth checking out.

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