Malcolm & Marie is a sneaky reflection on the current quarantined state of the world, a chamber drama in which the chamber is about to explode from the combustible heat of the escalating tension between the two central characters. Shot over the course of two weeks in summer 2020, the film is, at least in part, a sort of expression of brewing restlessness within a confined space – though in this case, that space is the relationship of the film’s title. Emotions have been stifled over time, tensions have built steadily but stealthily, and at long last, once removed from the outside world, everything spills over in a single night’s worth of confessions and grievances, emotional collapses and earnest, momentary reconciliations. The above could accurately describe every night of quarantine for some unfortunate souls.
Though set in a now-imaginary COVID-less world, the only indication of that world is delivered via the references made by the titular characters as they stew over them in isolation. Any outside people and events are merely pins on the map of the psycho-emotional plane on which Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) are currently stuck. He’s a director whose latest film has generated celebratory buzz; she’s a former actress who has evidently down-shifted into modeling, though her primary job description seems to be preparing boxed macaroni-and-cheese for Malcolm as he energetically opines on his successes and struggles. That’s the scenario as the couple returns from the premiere of Malcolm’s film, the reaction to which has left him on cloud nine, while Marie is just antsy to pee and get out of her stifling designer gown. Once they enter the swanky-but-sterile confines of their studio-rented temporary residence, it feels like a conscious exit from the outside world and into, essentially, a vacuum of their own hubris and insecurity. The house is actually Carmel, California’s famous Caterpillar House, itself a sort-of character in the film’s sequestered tumult, a glass case that functions as a truth serum for Malcolm and Marie to express their unfiltered feelings about the world from which that are now separated.
And express they do, in eloquently verbose detail, taking turns with monologues that sometimes spill into heated conversations, sometimes trail off into mundane bemusement, and sometimes reach the full dramatic tilt of soliloquy. The inciting incident for the couple’s night of fevered outpouring is simple but damning: amid the rapturous response to the premiere, Malcolm failed to thank Marie in his speech. Since she was not only a sounding board for the project but also its inspiration, Marie feels as though the snub is indicative of much bigger issues beneath the surface. Of course, she’s not wrong, though Levinson’s screenplay bends over backward to try and balance the load of culpability for the couple’s complicated issues, even though, in its simplest form, much of it stems from Malcolm’s selfishness and artistic arrogance.
As played with swagger and bombast by Washington, he’s an ambitious and intelligent artist with an ax to grind against his least-favorite critics, whom he views as bloviating know-nothings. His bloated self-importance is magnetic but also, eventually, overbearing. One could very easily get the sense that there is thin line between Malcolm and Levinson himself – the filmmaker has taken some undeniably big artistic swings that were met with critical dismissal, and sometimes derision. And even for this film, some early reviews have taken issue with the screenplay’s forceful monologues railing against critics. Fair enough, though one thing to note throughout Levinson’s work is that he is, ultimately, an endlessly self-critical filmmaker. He talks openly about his past struggles with addiction, and funnels that into much of his work, most successfully in his HBO series, Euphoria. He channels that recovery journey into Malcolm & Marie as well, with Marie as the conduit. Zendaya, as ever, is magnificent, though the character feels less a fully realized individual than a cipher for another portion of Levinson’s id. In yet another parallel between filmmaker and character, Levinson inadvertently dismisses Marie in the same way Malcolm does.
That’s not to say Levinson isn’t trying really hard to give credence to Marie’s perspective, which – incomplete characterization aside – still wins this 100-minute těte-à-těte with Malcolm, who is well-meaning but ultimately blinded by his own artistic narcissism. In essence, Malcolm & Marie allows Levinson to argue with himself in real time, though not in the bland navel-gazing manner one might fear. He is earnestly attempting a self-reckoning, with Marie as his addictive tendencies flattened by recovery, and Malcolm as the bold artistic side that keeps his addiction in check but endlessly wrestles with delusions of grandeur. There’s not room for a ton of suggestion to sneak through the breathless exchange of dialogue, since Levinson seems to already know all the answers to the questions. Nevertheless, it’s written with barbed eloquence, performed with ferocity, and shot in a beautiful 35mm black-and-white that provides a classical cinematic context for material that might otherwise feel like a stage play. Malcolm & Marie is an intriguing exploration of isolation – within oneself, within a troubled relationship, and within a spatial seclusion, whether gifted by a studio or forced by a pandemic.