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The film lecture we didn’t ask for: ‘Malcolm and Marie’

For obvious reasons, 2020 was a dry year in the cinema industry. Any movie released by the major streaming platforms became the focus of moviegoers. Sam Levinson’s new single-location Netflix movie, “Malcolm and Marie,” is no different. A movie that would not be discussed much in a pre-COVID-19 world is now creating heated debate among cinephiles. Most criticism towards the movie argues that Levinson is not entitled to be criticizing the film industry as he only worked in a few major projects previously.

The movie tells the story of Malcolm (John David Washington), an African American director who has just made his debut, and his wife Marie (Zendaya), who is a former drug addict. As the couple comes back home from Malcolm’s premiere, they start to argue about their relationship, their lives and their perspectives on art. At this point, it is possible to expect a dialogue-driven movie that explores both the characters and their relationship deeply. However, as time passes you realize that there is nothing much to explore in the couple’s relationship; rather, the movie is more about Sam Levinson rejecting the idea of “Death of the Author” using his characters’ words.   

Featuring only two characters and a single location, this movie is surprisingly lacking in dialogue, and I don’t mean that the dialogue lacks quality. Literally, the amount of dialogue in the movie is not enough to keep the audiences engaged for the whole runtime. The film is really a series of monologues arguing different opinions. It can be summarized like this: Malcolm’s monologue, silence, characters go to the backyard to get some fresh air, Marie’s monologue, silence and repeat. At some point, this repetitiveness turns into a major problem and disrupts the pace of the movie significantly. 

Character depth is another important issue with Levinson’s writing. With the essayistic tone that Levinson employs, the characters act more like narrative devices than real people with their own stories. Most of the time you can sense that the ideas being presented are Levinson’s rather than the characters’. After some point, even the person delivering the monologue doesn’t matter anymore because the whole script turns into an essay written by Levinson. The movie is named “Malcolm and Marie” because otherwise you would forget the main characters’ names five minutes after the credits roll. There are some efforts to add depth to the characters, like Marie’s drug addiction and Malcolm’s past relationships, but these details don’t seem to shape their views in any way. 

You might think there is nothing wrong with using characters as narrative devices in movies, and you would be right. This only becomes problematic when you use the only two characters in your movie as narrative devices. The performances by Washington and Zendaya suffer from this problem. Most of their screen time seems unnatural because the lines that they are speaking feel artificial. There are some particular scenes where I’d bet that John David Washington never felt this lost in his career before. And I remind you, he also starred in “Tenet” this year.

From a narrative standpoint, Levinson’s efforts to maintain an objective narrative are clumsy. Malcolm, who clearly acts as the alter ego of Levinson, dominates Marie in every exchange and forces the audience to side with him. Levinson accomplishes this rather subtly by always giving Malcolm the last word. Most of the time, the arguments end with a long monologue by Malcolm which Marie has no answer to. A comparison can be drawn here with the aforementioned “Marriage Story.” Although Charlie Barber, the male protagonist of “Marriage Story” bears a resemblance to Baumbach, the director does a pretty good job of providing an objective narrative where the audience is allowed to support either of the characters unlike in “Malcolm and Marie.” Just as in “Marriage Story,” the film’s call for an objective narrative only works when the audience understands both of the characters’ motivations.      

There are movies that gained critical acclaim by criticizing the art industry. Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” Ruben Östund’s Palme d’Or-winning “The Square” or Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” are all critical about the concept of art criticism. They have one thing in common: they were all written and directed by auteurs who had already proven themselves. In the case of “Malcolm and Marie,” despite giving good directorial signals in his first major project “Euphoria,” Levinson does not seem like the right person to be complaining about the industry as he is relatively new to the game. 

In one scene, Malcolm complains about how every movie made by African American filmmakers is considered political by saying, “Not everything I do is political because I am Black,” but the reality is that Levinson has never made a film that was considered “political,” and he is not even African American. When Martin Scorsese does a meta-criticism of gangster movies in “The Irishman,” I trust his views because he is the person that revolutionized the genre; but a white director who has never made a movie about racism is not the most credible source to be complaining about how the issue of race is tackled in film criticism. 

The only positive in the movie is the way it was shot. The black and white cinematography and the clever camera movement are a delightful distraction from the endless stream of monologues. Levinson does a decent job directing when he is not overly focused on dictating his views to the audience. Aesthetically speaking, watching his work is a joy both in “Euphoria” and “Malcolm and Marie,” and he is better off focusing on his artistic skills. A director of his talent offers great potential only if he manages to reduce his arrogance for the rest of his career.   

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