I usually can tell whether I liked a film or not.
But “Malcolm & Marie”, Sam Levinson’s new film, is one of those films that left me confused. Because I liked it and I didn’t like it at the same time.
I’m not going to lie : what made me want to watch it (at first) is the aesthetics of black and white. As soon as I saw the trailer, I found it beautiful.
The contrasts seemed striking, and the shots really intriguing.
I rarely watch black and white films, and when I do, it’s often old films.
But here I find that the “modern” use of black and white is very “catchy”.
And it’s perhaps this rarity that makes it even more enjoyable.
I think that the summaries were deliberately vague but here’s what we can know about the story : A couple (Malcolm - played by John David Washington and Marie - played Zendaya) return home after the premiere of Malcolm’s new film. From what was said during that evening, it’s easy to think that Malcolm’s film will certainly be acclaimed by the critics. But despite this good news, we quickly feel that there’s something wrong between the two.
Reading the various summaries, we might think that this film is another film about a love relationship. But in reality, I find it has something different, something more authentic and therefore more interesting.
But also more upsetting.
Here’s why :
1 - Firstly, this film broke my heart
As I was saying, as soon as the couple gets home, you can feel that the two people are not “on the same page” : Malcolm is drunk, joyful, he’s dancing,
he wants to celebrate his success with his girlfriend. While the latter is more distant, she vaguely answers him and starts to cook. Several minutes go by without Malcolm noticing that there’s something wrong.
He finally does and insists on understanding why. Marie doesn’t want to talk. She says that it will go wrong if she says why she’s upset (and she’s right !) but with Malcolm’s insistence, she finally talks : Malcolm didn’t thank Marie during his speech. We might think that it’s a stupid reason but it’s not : it encompasses much more than a thank you and from then on, our hearts will tighten more and more.
Throughout the film, there are alternating arguments, shouts and some sensual, loving moments (like short moments of reconciliation) but on the whole, it’s a heavy atmosphere.
There’s a very fine line between love and hate. The word “hate” is certainly a bit strong here, but you can feel that from the first argument, as soon as the first words are said (or rather shouted), that the things said really had to be said. That’s the problem isn’t new.
It’s heartbreaking because it’s an universal topic. It’s the story of “Malcolm & Marie” but I think many, many people can relate to it.
It’s heartbreaking because both actors play really well. I believe in them as a couple (such a strong chemistry between the two!) but I also believe in them individually. We don’t know exactly their past and when one of them says something, it seems that both are right and both are wrong.
It’s heartbreaking because you become attached to both characters without being able to take sides. I recognised myself in Marie, in her inability to love herself, in her sensitivity and yet she irritated me on certain points.
For example, I sometimes found her too self-centred (which may seem contradictory to her inability to love herself, I know).
As for Malcolm, he made me laugh (I explain why in the rest of this article).
I also found him loving and yet he too irritated me on certain points.
For example, I think I would have had the same reaction as Marie regarding the “forgetting” of the thank you during his speech, and I found him so cruel in the bathroom scene.
It’s impossible to take sides because we don’t know what happened before this night and, also, nobody’s perfect. On one side or the other, I often said to myself “he/she went too far this time.”
“Malcolm & Marie”’s film is behind closed doors and we can really feel it.
Besides they live in a house that seems to be lost in the middle of nowhere.
What makes this film interesting too is that it was made during 2020, a year unfortunately mades of lockdown(s). And I find that we can definitely relate this film to some feelings felt during such periods. Being cut off from the world, being faced with difficult thoughts and wondering how we’re going to deal with them and how the road ahead will be.
I know that many people believe that Malcom makes this relationship an abusive one. And I agree on some parts, but on others I can’t help thinking that if the relationship is abusive, it’s abusive for both. They know their own powers, and they know how to manipulate the other one. Hitting the other one where it hurts. And it’s a really negative point in their relationship.
2 - Time
It’s quite late when the couple return home. At one point in time, Marie says that she’s cooking food when it’s already late (1am) and that she just wants to go to bed. Minutes go by, arguments go by, and sometimes the atmosphere is so heavy, you might just want the film to end. So when we can think that the conflict seems to be calming down, we tend to say “phew, it’s finally calming down!” But no! One of the characters wants to have the last word and here we go again…so we wonder when will it stop, when will they stop hurting each other. This is one of the director’s exploits: the story becomes suffocating and exhausting for the characters and for US.
However, there’s also a kind of suspense: because even when it calms down, as a spectator you know that the film is going to last (you only have to pause the film to see that there are minutes left before the end) and so you wonder how it will continue.
3 - Surprise
When Marie takes a knife and walks towards Malcolm, I remember thinking that I didn’t want the film to go bloody. And when Marie starts to tell Malcolm, with the knife in her hand, everything that she’s done to him (cheating, theft, continuing taking drug …), how can you not think “What? She did this?” Like Malcolm, I was stunned. And as surprised as he when he realizes that Marie had just acted…and then proved how talented she can be.
The director played with our feelings, he lead us on the wrong track before coming back to reality. And yes, I liked this surprise.
4 - Laughter (yes, there’s laughter !)
Some people may not understand me but this film also made me laugh.
Here I’m talking about Malcolm’s crazy monologues about the criticism of his film. There are certain points on which I agree with him, in particular the way the critics categorize works according to their authors.
But how not to laugh when Malcolm starts to get excited, to shout, to behave strangely, to say a lot of insults when…as Marie says, the criticism he talks about is quite good.
5 - Music : crying and dancing
Music seems to be essential in this film. Each song is particularly well chosen since it reflects the story very well. When Malcolm plays William Bell’s “I forgot to be your lover”, it’s a too easy way to apologize but the words in the song fit the plot very well. The same goes for the lyrics of “Selfish” by Little Simz. And so it’s quite sad.
However, there’s also music that can make you want to dance. When the couple has just come home and Malcolm plays “Down and out in New York city” (by James Brown and The J.B.’s) and starts dancing, it’s hard not to do the same. By alternating music that makes you want to move your body and musics that brings you back to reality, this selection represents the contradictory atmosphere of the film. The happiness and the sadness.
6 - The open ending
When the two characters go to bed after this night of arguments, we can easily wonders what the next day will look like. How do you wake up after that ?
When Malcolm wakes up, he sees that Mary is no longer in their bed.
He starts looking for her in the house. For a while I thought she had definitely left the house. Maybe at this moment he realizes that he really doesn’t want to lose her?
He goes out in the garden and finds her standing on a sort of little hill.
Her back is to the camera. Malcolm comes next to Marie and he looks in the same direction than her. It feels like they’re talking to each other.
For me, it’s definitely an open ending. They might say “what do we do now?”.
She might tell him that she’s leaving him. But for me, the way they’re lifted up, standing side by side, looking in the same direction, is quite symbolic:
it’s a new day and above all the start of a new chapter. As if this night had been more than necessary. That things had to be said so that they could get back on a better footing. They know they hurt each other in the past, and in the future they will work on that.
So originally I wanted to explain to you why I liked and disliked this film.
But, as I was writing my article, I realized (and I guess you’ll have realized it too) that even in the parts I liked the least, I found things I liked. I liked the images, the music, but most of all I liked the way the vulnerability of these human beings is highlighted. Watching cruelty, tears, wounds is hard but it makes you think about yourself and your relationships.
A part of me would have liked to know more about their relationship before this night. To learn more about Marie’s life. To watch Malcolm’s film. To hear his speech. To not see an open ending…
But another part of me is satisfied with this film. Because it lets me imagine the past as well as the future. It lets me believe in Malcolm & Marie.