In writer/director Sam Levinson’s two hander, film director Malcolm (John David Washington) and his partner Marie (Zendaya) return from the premiere of Malcom’s latest film to the luxuriously appointed beach house lent to them by the film company and, rather like George and Martha do in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf spend the rest of the night tearing the guts out of their relationship.
Like that earlier film this is shot in black and white but Malcolm and Marie conduct their eviscerating marathon without the benefit of another couple to act as their audience. They are also much younger with a very different history.
M and M’s mammoth duologue starts quite mildly. All hyped up from the premiere, Malcolm puts a James Brown track onto the player and does a triumphant dance around the living room. Marie quietly heats a saucepan of water on the stove for the “straight from the packet” macaroni cheese comfort food she knows he likes. And though he seems oblivious of the fact that she’s pissed off about something, we are certainly aware of it. Turns out it’s the speech Malcolm made at the premiere, where he thanked everyone in the world down to the doorman but not Marie. And as their fiery duel takes flight, it turns out she has a point, as the film for which Malcolm is being praised for his insight and authenticity is based on her own life as a recovering drug addict.
Malcolm and Marie came into being when the American television series Euphoria, on which Levinson and Zendaya were working, was cancelled due to the pandemic and they decided to create their own movie, which they produced themselves on a vacated California ranch under Covid safe conditions. And even though the story is not set in Covid times and takes place in spacious house on the edge of the ocean, the film captures the enhanced feeling of claustrophobia, which many couples must have been experiencing in the last year.
Both the actors are excellent. Malcolm is in many ways a self obsessed, insensitive bully unable to show true tenderness and with an annoying tendency to show off his college education knowledge of film culture (or is that Levinson as the film’s writer?) But he also convinces us of his love and need for Marie. Zendaya is a bit of a revelation as she changes literally and emotionally from the apparently sophisticated and heavily made up director’s girlfriend in an expensive and revealing premiere dress of the opening scenes into the young and vulnerable woman underneath. She is particularly revealing in her facial responses to her lover’s rants, though also pretty impressive in her own. We are also left in no doubt that there is a strong sexual bond between the couple holding them together. They make out a lot, although they always get distracted into more conflict and accusations before ever actually having sex.
There are a couple of sequences where Malcolm is slagging off a white female critic for what he sees as her racist praise for his film – a burst of invective which is both funny and in itself both racist and sexist – where I really missed the fact that I was not watching the film in a cinema with other critics! And despite the excellence of the performances, this long night for Malcolm and Marie sometimes seems long for the viewer too. One sometimes wants to mutter at the screen, “Oh do shut up and have a shag! You’ll feel so much better.”
Malcolm and Marie is available on Netflix from 5th February