Malcolm and Marie is a long night’s shallow film lecture

An ode to filmmaking wrapped up in a film-biz couple’s domestic argument, Sam Levinson’s film gets no traction on its subjects.

Zendaya as Marie and John David Washington as Malcolm in Malcolm and Marie

▶︎ Malcolm and Marie is streaming on Netflix.

Written and directed by Sam Levinson – creator and writer of the HBO hit series Euphoria (2019) – Malcolm & Marie was conceived as a love-letter to filmmaking. The narrative centres on an all-night row, interspersed with some tender displays of romance, between the young couple of the title. 

On the brink of critical and commercial success after the premiere of his new film, Malcolm (John David Washington) returns to his home in Malibu with his girlfriend, long-suffering emotional crutch and muse Marie (Zendaya). Full of elation and bravado, he begins to celebrate his imminent ascent into Hollywood, while Marie broods with resentment. After a revelation about her past and the origins of his screenplay, the lovers argue throughout the night.

The drama is predominantly confined to the couple’s luxurious home; the camera gazes on rage-fuelled arguments through pristine glass windows, or closing in on Washington and Zendaya’s altercations, creating a sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere. Cinematographer Marcell Rév composes beautifully lit scenes in black and white, an ode to classic cinema which places Black actors in a cinematic context that has often omitted them.

At times, Levinson’s direction is slick and energetic, bringing Washington’s athleticism to the fore as he dances with abandon around the plush Malibu home; in other moments Levinson relishes the stillness of close-up, intimate confessional scenes. The sumptuous aesthetics of this film, however, are not matched by its script or performances. Levinson uses his two leads as surrogates to deliberate on film criticism, identity politics, the process of ‘authentic’ storytelling and the difficulties of long-term partnerships. The result, despite the provocative dialogue, feels remarkably inauthentic: shallow pontificating without anything meaningful to convey.

Washington and Zendaya – two of the biggest contemporary screen talents – offer instances of sincerity, but these are overshadowed by exaggerated acting, concerned more with delivering monologues than portraying three-dimensional character arcs. There are a few quiet scenes, in which Washington’s vulnerability and Zendaya’s silent fury register strongly, but throughout it feels as if a lecture is being delivered, rather than the viewer being drawn into a profound relationship drama. During a polemic on criticism, which questions the problem of white critics misinterpreting the work of Black filmmakers, the irony of Levinson’s own position as a creator comes into sharp focus. Despite its admirable visual qualities, emotional depth and political nuance are lacking, and the film fails to make any impact.