The film’s monochromatic intensity is a brutal reminder that “there’s a fine line between love and hate.”
Malcolm & Marie, the new film starring Zendaya and John David Washington, takes a look at the inner machinations of the human condition as seen through the eyes of a film director and his girlfriend. The film is, simply put, excellent, navigating difficult emotions and events with a deft hand.
Malcolm & Marie opens in the casual afterglow of after-party exhaustion, but Malcolm’s triumphant film premiere ignites sparks into his and Marie’s hot-and-cold relationship. On the surface, Marie seems capricious in her passiveness and reluctance to say what’s really on her mind. She’s hard to read — to Malcolm, and to viewers, too.
The tension between the duo escalates with each passing moment.
With poise and painful honesty, Marie expresses a feeling that reveals the depth of her disappointment. She feels both hypervisible, an indispensable mantel piece on Malcolm’s shelf of inspiration, yet invisible in the credits of his most successful endeavor. She gets the sense that she’s contributing to a meaningful project that paradoxically leaves her feeling meaningless when it dawns on her that her life story, her one and only narrative, no longer belongs to her. Zendaya portrays this role beautifully, conveying the hurt and humiliation of a muse left to atrophy.
Marie’s frustration is mirrored by Malcolm’s realization that despite his best creative output, mainstream film critics are still inclined to pigeonhole him and his work in the slim category of ‘Black filmmaking’, politicizing and sensationalizing his identity rather than simply critiquing his film. What Malcolm’s critics fail to understand, is that it’s one thing to comment on the lived experiences and expressions of Black people on screen, to romanticize their upheavals, to uplift their overcoming immeasurable feats — but it’s another to go home with the heavy load of his lived experience.
Agency in interpretation is a vital element to any craft, and Malcolm and Marie’s rich dialogue and complex themes does complete justice to this ideal. The film escapes the trap of unidimensional characterization of Black creatives. Not only does it star talented Black actors, but it is also produced by multifaceted Black artists like Scott Mescudi, better known as Kid Cudi, whose impeccable style and musicality is hinted at in almost every scene. In fact, at times, the film’s soundtrack embodies a singular shapeshifting character of its own, a sonic vehicle that both Malcolm and Marie use to vocalize the thoughts that they fear uttering out loud.
The film’s plot and script were written in under a week and shot in only two, all in the midst of a global pandemic, which perhaps explains how director Sam Levinson, the sensitive eye behind HBO’s Euphoria, managed to capture the characters rollercoaster of emotions. The rawness of Zendaya and Washington’s performance makes the whole production seem like an intimate actors workshop.
And despite the slow unravelling, their constant shifting and moving around the panoramic shots somehow makes the film feel like a fast-paced play.
Both characters move with ease through the uneasiness. We see this in Marie’s dazed yet intense demeanor, the quivering of her chin as her carefully crafted indifference slips from under her, and again in the frightened look on Malcolm’s face when he realizes how thoroughly well-read Marie is on his insecurities. The couple predict each other’s every move, can sense the other’s frequencies from rooms apart, yet they’re still startled by the words the other uses to cut through their guardedness. When one tugs, the other pulls, and when one nudges, the other boulders through the door.
It’s a game of tug a war where the most triggering cajole wins.
Although the movie was shot in black and white, the thickening of the plot, which seems both years in the making, and a sign of the times, leaves us more focused on the grey areas. As the credits roll in, a classic Outcast melody puts Malcom and Marie’s tumultuous love story into words, reminding us in so many words that “there’s a fine line between love and hate.”