As much as 'Malcolm & Marie' might ignore the fact that it was one of the first movies made during the pandemic, you can feel its presence in every scene of it.
The movie is set in the aftermath of another one; a glitzy premiere which John David Washington's writer-director character is ecstatic after receiving glowing reviews for his work. His partner, Zendaya, is ambivalent about his success, and over the course of the evening, begin to hash out their relationship problems through the prism of both his work, her emotional problems, his narcissism, and her destructive behaviour.
We've all been locked inside these past 10 months, and many relationships have flourished and disintegrated in that time because there's little else to do except face one another and deal with the problems head on. 'Malcolm & Marie' puts us uncomfortably in the middle of a potentially relationship-ending fight that goes through crests and waves, hills and valleys, before it ends as these things often do - somewhat unsatisfactorily.
To be clear, it's an interesting movie and the premise is a self-revealing one for director / writer Sam Levinson. John David Washington's rants and raves about American film critics trying to push political and racial observations into everything is one, as is the back-and-forth between Zendaya and John David Washington about ownership over a work that's been inspired by personal trauma. Both characters give full-throated arguments on their point, and you can see the actors are enjoying the process of revealing themselves in each scene.
The choice to film in black-and-white is an interesting one. Is Sam Levinson saying something about relationships are never black and white, but shades of grey? Is it trying to infuse something that feels like it should be a play with a cinematic scope? The reality is that while it may seem like it's reaching for arthouse, the truth of it is that the back-and-forth arguing between airy rooms in a Malibu beach house feels more like some kind of high soap opera.
Zendaya and John David Washington crash off of each other throughout the movie, neither one refusing to let the other get the last word. It can feel exhausting, particularly when their arguments feel like they're going in circles. If an argument gets that bad, wouldn't one of them just get up and leave to go somewhere else? Again, you get the sense that if this was made at any other time, it would be a much larger movie. You'd have flashbacks - maybe in colour? - and you'd have other characters come in and come out. Instead, the two leads are in quarantine together, rattling around their bougie house and sniping at one another.
It can't be said that 'Malcolm & Marie' is an enjoyable movie, but it's definitely one that sticks with you. The focus on textures and grains, the music that plays through some of the scenes, how the two actors get so intimate with one another - it's all there, all of it made with an attention to detail and a real sense of artistry and awareness of emotional complexity.