Combining limitations and creativity can create exciting if complicated relationships, something director Sam Levinson and his stars, John David Washington and Zendaya, use to great effect here in a tense, splenetic and often riveting drama about, well, a tense, splenetic, complicated relationship. Shot in lockdown in the US during the summer of 2020 with a minimal crew, a single location and a cast of just two, Malcolm & Marie never feels limited by its setting. Instead, we’re forced to hyper-focus on the only two characters available to us, analysing their insecurities and pride, just as the pair themselves are doing to one another.
Washington is Malcolm, a young-ish director experiencing his first critical movie hit. We find him returning home from the film’s successful Malibu premiere with girlfriend Marie (Zendaya), a former actor and recovering addict, who partly-inspired the lead character of his movie. While Malcolm crows about his success, bragging about the critics he wowed and laughing about making “that white woman from the LA Times” uncomfortable during a conversation about Black directors, Marie quite clearly has the hump about something. And she doesn’t want to talk about it. Her partner is sharp enough to pick up on it, but not quite so sharp as to know when to let something lie. What follows is a tight 90-ish minutes of rolling arguments, ego puncturing, one up-manship, rants, soliloquies and revelations, all done with an admirable lightness of touch that never leaves the viewer as unbearably uncomfortable as you might think, and zips along at a surprising lick.
Levinson, doing double-time on script duties, is slow to reveal the real heart of his film. Sometimes we think it’s a movie about the Black experience and the expectations put upon people of colour to represent that experience in their art; a treatise on what is and isn’t political, what is and isn’t racist. Sometimes we think it’s a movie about movies, “the mystery of art, of film” as Malcolm says, about art critics and film writers, about how reviewers often critique the creator and not the creation, about the power in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes we think it’s about jealousy or artistic passion, or basic human courtesies. It takes a while to realise that none of that is what the film is actually getting at – that’s just what it’s two protagonists are discussing. It’s all foreground stuff.
Ultimately this is a piece about couples. All couples. Any couple. It’s about the arguments you’d have if you let yourself say what you really think. That Washington and Zendaya are sexy, glamorous creatives in a story about sexy, glamorous creatives is by-the-by. This is a story about basically everyone’s relationship. The way a sentence or a single word or a glance can hide a multitude of meanings, about how people in love know exactly how to wound each other. The way each member of a pair exists as a pillar in the other’s reality that can both support and block. It’s about how much we need each other. All credit to Levinson, Washington and Zendaya, because the universality of human companionship is not an easy concept to get over in a Netflix two-hander done on a shoestring.
There’s a lot of skill on show here. The real-time, single-set nature of the story could easily feel stagey (this would make a great play, for sure), but Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév keep things gorgeously cinematic, shooting in grainy black and white, letting the camera linger, but keeping the frame exquisite; the figures often framed by doorways, bed frames, windows and counters to create classy, printable images. Every frame looks almost annoyingly stylish without feeling contrived. Again, limitations become virtues. The two performances rarely stray into purely naturalistic, Washington rants and raves and holds-forth, while Zendaya’s Marie punctures and needles, and at one point plays a blinder of misdirection. The dialogue is often saying the unsaid in a way few couples actually articulate, but most probably mean. There’s a real pleasure in watching the charismatic pair tearing strips off one another, getting in jabs and stingers and coming to understand one another better as a result.
It takes until very nearly the final shot for Levinson to show his true hand, as Malcolm and Marie lie together, their bodies separated and mingled by a mirror – each reflecting the other, each reflecting us.