Eviscerating — it’s one of the many wounding words thrown around with rage in the riveting talkathon that leaves you both emotionally exhausted and intellectually excited. It happens one night in a film replete with film references, where names of iconic film-makers and classic movies are thrown into a conversation that veers off course, and critics are derided for their unconscious racism and conscious political correctness. Malcolm & Marie (Netflix) engages in a duel to death, and only pauses for breath, and music that acts like a complementary track.
Malcolm and Marie of the film’s title are a couple who come home after the premier of Malcolm’s new film where this young black director (John David Washington, son of the great Denzel) is compared to Spike Lee and John Singleton. Malcolm is in a cautiously celebratory mood because he doesn’t know what the critics will write the next day. He is particularly mean about the white woman at LA Times: he is sure she will see a racist angle in his film about a young black woman trying to come clean from her drug habit. The stunningly beautiful Marie (Zendaya) answers in monosyllables, ambushing to deflate Malcolm’s swagger: you thanked everyone but left me out.
Marie's experience is what Malcolm's film is based on, but no, this creative genius doesn’t bother to thank her, at least for her support. Legit complaint. And now, anger spirals out of control. Malcolm has gone to college, his mother is a therapist and his father a professor, his sister works in a think tank: so how is he entitled to interpret the ghetto girl’s life? From then on, a fusillade of words is let loose, on each other, and us. Underneath the anger and frustration, of crude jibes and hurtful recounting of Malcolm’s sexual encounters with other women, there is passion that binds them in a love-hate relationship.
Sam Levinson reportedly wrote and directed this film during the pandemic over two weeks, with just two actors, and a crew of 22. Washington and Zendaya have a stake in the film that depends on their performance to pour life into the raging words that could have remained a tired rhetoric. A modern recycling of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The actors are part producers. Sometimes, the very constraints of shooting during a pandemic can trigger imaginative film-making. The Malibu house, where all the action takes place, is an architectural delight, a glass house (literally and metaphorically) where no words-barred verbal warfare takes place. The large windows, from which we can see the sculpted trees in the backyard, provide framing from within and without. The mood-enhancing B&W cinematography dispels any hint of claustrophobia.
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