Animated by a pair of nervy, livewire performances from stars Zendaya and John David Washington, Euphoria creator Sam Levinson’s two-hander Malcolm and Marie — the first film to be written and produced entirely during the pandemic — tangles with the paradoxes of art, authenticity and race through the lens of a rocky relationship breakdown.
Written by Levinson in just one week, and filmed while Euphoria was on forced hiatus in June and July 2020, the movie is small in scope but hardly in its dramatic ambition — it revels in its characters’ contradictions and thematic complexity, expanding and contracting in sometimes funny, often maddening, and consistently riveting ways.
Some time after midnight in an eerie, isolated designer house in Malibu that’s steeped in shadow and cabin fever, filmmaker Malcolm (Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) arrive home after the gala premiere of his latest film. He’s older, cockier, puffed up in a fresh-pressed slick black suit and tie; she’s more uncertain, an ingenue who wears her cross-strap evening gown with considerably less ease.
The screening was a triumph, feted by the critics — one of whom, much to Malcolm’s annoyance but not surprise, calls him “the next Spike Lee” — but their post-party celebration is soured by his failure to thank Marie in his speech, an oversight made worse by the fact that the movie, about an addict, appears to have been significantly inspired by her life.
This becomes the major sticking point that will drive their night of rollercoaster of emotions — arguments that spiral out from film industry insider woes to universal themes around the dynamics of relationships, trust, and power.
Their standoff grows increasingly absurd, raging into the early morning, interrupted only by fleeting lulls or cigarette breaks: he repeatedly calls her crazy and delusional, only to be met with a calm, cutting rejoinder, or the angry assertion that he’s been using her for story material.
Midway through, Marie plays Dionne Warwick’s conflicted Get Rid of Him over her phone speaker, and the chorus starts to sound like sensible advice.
There are vague echoes of the character dramas of John Cassavetes here, but Malcolm and Marie is only superficially interested in improvised verite; rather than run ragged into weird, uncomfortable places, Levinson’s scenes are highly stylised, with an exacting kind of fluidity — dolly shots that glide along the house as its subjects pace like caged animals, frames that set traps from which the couple have to escape, and rapid cutting and jittery, hand-held camera that reflects the jangled nerves of the protagonists.
Levinson and Euphoria cinematographer Marcell Rev shoot in an inky 35mm black and white that abstracts the work from realism and plays into film’s themes around artifice, while the jazz-inflected soundtrack and self-consciously arty imagery hearken back at times to the 60s — a little bit of Michelangelo Antonioni, a lot of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
If Levinson riffs affectionately on film history, then he’s apparently less fond of contemporary critics. The movie’s most divisive scene involves a long, amusingly exasperated monologue in which Malcolm calls out the performative writing of certain white critics who want to box in Black directors — reading aloud from a review peppered with race theory, loaded language, and white-saviour remarks. (The rant has, perhaps predictably, earned the scorn of some reviewers for whom the words might have hit a little too close to home.)
Certainly it’d be easy to scoff at Levinson, a privileged white director making a race-themed film with Black stars, who might be seen as trying to preemptively insulate himself against criticism.
But to do so feels reductive, given the project’s collaborative nature: it risks diminishing the agency of the two stars, both of whom are producers, and ignores the rejoinders built into the script.
As Marie gently reminds Malcolm after his speech, “Do you think you’re the first writer in the history of writing to have this issue with critics?”
Much of the electricity of Malcolm and Marie is how it raises these questions and deliberately pushes forward ideas that challenge the identity politics that characterises so much of today’s criticism, while also poking fun at the idea of artistic genius.
Where is the authorial perspective in a collaborative piece, the film wonders. Who gets to tell whose story?
“Authenticity doesn’t matter,” spits Malcolm. “You’re full of shit,” Marie replies, and by way of illustration, she snaps into an overwrought, awards-season acting performance that shows just how easy authenticity can be switched on — and through art’s funhouse mirror they go.
In these moments the film is also very funny, driven by combustible, mutable performances.
Tenet star Washington, this time not being out-acted by his suit, brings a mixture of passion and cruelty, generosity and self-absorption; while Zendaya, whose creative partnership with Levinson on Euphoria has seen them negotiate the murky terrain of depression and addiction, moves in unexpected ways, from exhaustion to explosive, withering disdain.
“Nobody cares what you have to say,” Marie fires back at Malcolm at one point, a line that will likely find purchase with Levinson’s critics — and fair enough, given the movie’s often bratty, confrontational energy.
Whatever it all means — a meditation on art and reality, ego and creativity, or just a throwaway riff doubling as an acting flex — the film remains satisfyingly unresolved and messy in its point of view, a source of spirited debate.
Malcolm and Marie is on Netflix from February 5.