Review: Malcolm and Marie (2021)

From the opening frame of Malcolm and Marie (Sam Levinson, 2021), it’s clear that the entirety of the film that follows will be beautifully shot as we get to know the titular couple. Director Sam Levinson is the creator of HBO’s Euphoria, a show that highlights the incredible performance and acting skillset of Zendaya who plays Marie here. Levinson’s third feature film is not heavily plot-driven. Instead, Malcolm and Marie is a tense character study of two people in a troubled and complicated relationship, relishing in their moments of bitterness and contempt, but also in the sensuality shared between the two.

Cinematographer Marcell Rév chooses to showcase the lengthy conversations between Malcolm and Marie with incredibly intimate camerawork. The beginning sequence where filmmaker Malcolm is telling Marie about the critics of his work that are stating that he will be the next Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Barry Jenkins, is one long take with the camera dollying from left to right and back again as the conversation goes on. Rév follows Malcolm as he walks throughout the living room and slowly returns to Marie as she smokes reflectively in the open doorway. This moment sets a tone for the couple’s dynamic throughout the film. We’re also given handheld camerawork that pits us right in between the couple as they talk, fight, and make love. The stark black and white images are used to devastatingly beautiful effect. Every image just pops.

Zendaya (Euphoria, The Greatest Showman), once again, proves that she is beyond capable of commanding a space. Her subtle expressions and slight inflections in her vocal choices escalate the tension between the feuding couple without her having to raise her voice and when it is finally raised, you really feel the intensity. In the middle of the verbal altercations, Zendaya will sit or stand silently for a beat, contrasting with the more vocal Washington. There’s a really fantastic quiet moment where Marie plays a song on her phone while she and Malcolm sit outside smoking that showcases all of her emotions without relying on any dialogue at all.

John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman, Tenet) is also doing strong work here as Malcolm, but relies more on volume increases and movement. That is the intent of the character, however. We’re able to read him fairly clearly throughout the film, while he is trying to decode how Marie feels after his forgetting to thank her in his film premiere speech. Washington also delivers very effective and emotive rants in several moments throughout the film. It’s incredibly impressive that Malcolm’s rants are shown in long takes, proving that Washington just truly inhabits the character.

Malcolm and Marie is a great example of a film that was safely shot during the COVID-19 pandemic. The entirety of the film takes place in one small location and Zendaya and Washington are literally the only two performers in the space. In the press kit provided by Netflix, they discuss just how careful they were with social distancing, testing, etc. It’s nice to see something creative and impactful born out of a pandemic tragedy. I’m definitely interested to see more work made during this time.

Malcolm and Marie premieres tomorrow (February 5th) on Netflix. If you’re looking for an emotionally complex film that shines a light on the flawed relationship between two people while utilizing stunning images to show us the true nature of both characters, definitely give this one a go. This is not simply a sensual romance, it is a gritty and troubling examination of a modern relationship. I also loved the many discussions on film, production, and social issues in contemporary cinema. It features a really great score that perfectly encapsulates the emotional and sexual tension in the film. Check this one out!

Rating: 3.5/5

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