In the lead up to awards season, films featuring predominant chamber pieces with powerful and intense monologues appear to be making a real stride, take One Night in Miami or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for example. These sequences typically involve a small number of characters interacting in a limited environment and Netflix’s latest awards contender follows suit, unfolding over one night in an intimate and claustrophobic setting.
Directed by Sam Levinson (Assassination Nation) Malcolm & Marie centres on the titular duo as they return home from a successful film premiere showcasing Malcolm’s (John David Washington) latest movie. While the director awaits the first wave of critics reviews, his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) quietly makes him mac and cheese, evidently hurting while musing over the fact he forgot to thank her at the event. As the two delve into what happened at the premiere, unspoken regrets and pain surrounding their relationship are revealed, putting their relationship to the test.
The 106 minute runtime consists entirely of a couple’s increasingly volatile argument as their relationship spirals over the space of a single night; it’s relentless and exhausting. The sharp and cutting script is full of pain, resentment and anger, and yet there’s real emotion and passion between the two. Their arguments become a tirade of opposing approaches; Malcolm grows increasingly louder and more piercing while Marie, quietly and composed, questions his authenticity and support.
Thankfully there’s a certain ebb and flow to their bickering, with brief respites between each of their takedowns. These generally consist of amusing commentaries and brutal takedowns of film criticism and the entertainment and art industry. Malcolm also poignantly highlights the casual racism which creators still experience in this environment, as he’s told “you’re the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins.” However, if it wasn’t for the outstanding and elevating performances of Washington and Zendaya, I feel that the relentless and dialogue heavy drama will lose a lot of viewers, particularly as they’re not easy to warm to.
Following her award winning performance in Euphoria, Zendaya continues to excel with an outstanding and hugely affecting performance. She brings a real vulnerability to certain scenes, particularly when Washington’s Malcolm is verbally attacking her while in the bath, her trembling lips and the flaring of her nostrils speak louder than words. And yet there’s this compelling and cleverly crafted nature to her arguments, questioning his motives through her rehab and eventually why he didn’t cast her in the film. The couple have clearly been through a lot together, but her heartbreaking revelation that she can’t tell her story because he took it and used it for the film really hit hard.
Washington is the complete opposite however, there’s a different level of intensity to his performance. Malcolm can’t physically stop himself from arguing; he paces, often from room to room, bristling with annoyance and anger. His volume increases throughout to an unbearable level at times, often drowning Marie out. His attacks often belittle her, particularly when she’s vulnerable and laid bare in the bath. However underneath the outburst, there’s a real tenderness for Marie, particularly as he admits “I love the way you see the world. I love the way you think, your instincts…everything you’ve been through makes you, you.”
Sumptuously filmed in black-and-white, Levinson pairs the phenomenal performances with a series of intriguing and inventive shots and angles. The camerawork is hugely voyeuristic; the closeness of some scenes, coupled with the claustrophobic and intimate setting, feels like you’re watching the inner workings of this relationship unfold and yet you really shouldn’t be. Each scene is meticulously choreographed, particularly with the positioning and body language of each actor. In one of the concluding scenes we see them both sitting outside with crossed legs, they’re closed off to each other and hugely defensive, but yet mirrored. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition.
Malcom and Marie is increasingly volatile and unrelenting, but features sumptuous cinematography & an intriguing commentary on the entertainment industry. Zendaya is absolutely phenomenal alongside an electric John David Washington in this visceral & monologue-heavy drama. I wouldn’t be surprised if this late entry propelled the Europhia actor into awards contention.