The nature of film is open-ended. A film can be so many things. Whatever the intention of the director, it can then be read and dissected any number of ways by its audience. And so, what an interesting thing for a film to be an internal argument against itself, as though it is the only thing that exists, and there would not be an external reading after the fact. That is what Sam Levinson has issued with Malcolm & Marie, a film that rants openly against the formation of Modern Film Criticism, admits its own solipsistic nature, and desperately averts the viewer from doing an internal-seeking reading, hoping that it has had the full argument itself. That is an entirely flawed premise, of course; nobody can stop the conversation from happening, the director cannot precede and prevent the critic, by becoming their own critic, and making the review internally within their work. The critique will come anyway. As sure as rain. Whether that is a further issue, then, may have to be determined later.
For this critic, it’s not problematic, and is largely an interesting and worthwhile form of experiment. Self-fulfulling, and painting an easy target on the film’s back, certainly, but not without any merit. Levinson may be a son of nepotism but he also continues to create formally interesting work within fairly normal frameworks. Assassination Nation (2018) also turned inward, and subverted its own commentary, a couple times over. Euphoria (2019 — Present) flipped the lid on how television handles addiction-recovery, providing more nuance and discomfort than the usual cable show would do, taking advantage of its HBO freedom. Neither prior work represents the pinnacle of anything but proves that even someone given the grand opportunity of a privileged name can truly work toward more meaningful content. His work is consistently bold, reflexive, and interested in its own formal development.
The same themes reverberate through Malcolm & Marie. It features two of modern cinemas most star-turn ready performers, John David Washington and Zendaya. They both finally get roles written exactly for them. It feels as though no other modern performers would fit their parts. This film exists because they were ready to isolate, together, and film within the shifting context of COVID-19. That means it’s a stripped down affair, just two actors in a gorgeous home, reflecting on the cinematic careers of their characters. It also creates just the right fundamental simplicity of space, keying into an advantage of present filmmaking limitations, its claustrophobia and tracking shots (which are becoming a feature of the director) elevating the work.
John David Washington plays Malcolm, a film director who has just premiered his film for critics. It ought to be one of the best nights of his life. His girlfriend, Marie (played by Zendaya), feels shorted, as he has refused to acknowledge her meaningful contributions to the premise of the film. She feels she’s lived the life of the drug addict he has written about, and is owed some credit, which never comes. It’s interesting meta-commentary, as Zendaya emerges as Levinson’s muse, ably captivating the screen in his films, in a way she just hasn’t been given the opportunity to in her other roles. Finally, she soars on the screen. Every beat of the film exists around her emotional ups-and-downs, as it plays out as a long-winded argument. Malcolm might even admit by the end, he’s just done a lot of arguing with himself. That is also the way the film operates, an isolated debate club about it’s own process and merit of invention.
It has plenty enough to say. Malcolm is deeply frustrated with the state of film criticism. Despite his love of some classic cinema, the only comparison point for other critics are other Black filmmakers. Is he the next Spike Lee or Barry Jenkins? Why isn’t he the next William Wyler, he pontificates. He specifically calls out critics, “the woman from the LA Times,” and “the white guy from IndieWire,” with Levinson emboldened to right past wrongs, but a little self-obsessed in the process. It ventures on, through love and frustration, to meaningfully explore the relationship of the creator and their muse. Despite the ever-present arguments, it also remains a film of much tenderness and big-heartedness, John David Washington and Zendaya have a sizzling chemistry.
Given its cinematic self-obsessions, it’s pertinent that it’s also one of our best-looking recent black & white films. That it ought to be compared to an older class of filmmaker, than to the giants of today. The photography is constantly interesting, structurally informed by the amazing building where it all takes place. It lovingly captures the stars, creating just the right mood, just the right feeling, through consistently gorgeous lensing. The 35mm footage is an immense credit to the production, exquisite and texturally rich.
The conversation does not end inside the film. Malcolm & Marie is likely to create a whole field of hot takes, especially from burned film critics, who have to reflect on their work being predicated by the film itself. It’s no fun to have the second take, our whole job is to have something interesting to say before someone sees the film. There’s also a strong likelihood that it will mean something more to an audience. Someone just wanting to finally see John David Washington and Zendaya make good on the generational promise that they’ve been advertised as. Malcolm & Marie largely accomplishes that and looks damn good doing it. When Levinson gets out of his own way, his work truly sings and provides enough merit that it’s own internal conversation-stopping energy feels like a wasteful practice. Despite everything it wants to do and how often it wants to be alone with its thoughts, the film still works exceedingly well, and will create far more interesting conversations than it wants to.