In the opening scene of “Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick introduces the married couple played by then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman via a 60-second Steadicam shot. The pair are getting ready for a formal event. Cruise wears a tuxedo, Kidman a gown. The camera follows him around their New York apartment, entering the master bathroom, where she sits on the toilet, door ajar. Kidman stands, she wipes and they go on with their preparations, this unglamorous everyday gesture speaking volumes about the comfort this husband and wife feel around one another.
Two decades later, Sam Levinson has written and directed a movie about a different couple, “Malcolm & Marie,” and while his project isn’t nearly as ambitious as “Eyes Wide Shut” in theme or technique, it feels every bit as raw and honest in exploring the fissures in a relationship with a bit of wear on its tires. Not too shabby for a film dashed off and shot during the pandemic. Now, I can’t say whether Levinson was thinking of Kubrick with the movie’s opening, but the chances are good, considering how film-literate Levinson is (the son of “Diner” director Barry Levinson, Sam is the visionary behind HBO’s “Euphoria”).
Shot in beautiful high-contrast black and white — on actual 16mm Kodak stock — by “Euphoria” DP Marcell Rév, “Malcolm & Marie” opens at the other end of a swanky soirée. Instead of getting ready, Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) have come home from the premiere of his latest feature. She heads straight for the bathroom, leaving the door open behind her. The camera is polite enough to remain outside, but gazes in as she adjusts her pantyhose and does her business.
This is not a common sight in cinema, nor is it handled in a vulgar way. The inclusion could hardly have been a casual decision on the director’s part, and yet, it serves to establish an immediate sense of familiarity between the audience and these characters. Levinson understands that acknowledging the call of nature on-camera signifies authenticity, even if such “realism” is just an act, suspended in air quotes. That dance between exhibition and self-examination lies at the heart of “Malcolm & Marie.”
Virtually everything that takes place over the next 100-odd minutes reflects a similar level of intimacy, as if Levinson is permitting us to share something incredibly private with this couple. It’s “the biggest night of my life,” Malcolm believes, and we observe as they alternately appreciate and abuse one another, making love and war as they test and tentatively reestablish where they stand. The result is like Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” minus the booze and the cruel mirror a second couple provides. These two aren’t performing for anyone but each other, and Levinson has been extremely clever in folding the exposition we need into their argument. As they parry, Malcolm and Marie tell us who they are, how they met and what they expect for this relationship to survive.
From the moment they arrive at the designer beach house the production has provided, Malcolm is worked up, but it’s easily apparent that Marie’s not on the same wavelength. She stands just outside the door, coolly smoking a cigarette, while he paces the living room, recapping the night, anticipating the reviews that will come in a few hours. “The white guy from Variety liked it,” he says, feeling vindicated because those who’ve been cruel to him in the past were lining up at the premiere to congratulate him.
It’s Variety policy for its critics not to tip their hand as to their reaction before a review runs — but no matter. The point of Malcolm’s monologue is that he’s a Black filmmaker whose work is routinely judged by white people, and he’s bothered that these pundits insist on imposing a racial (though he uses the word “political”) dimension on everything people of color create. It’s a fair point, especially true of late, as critics go beyond the call to evaluate, using their reviews to signify their own woke-ness. But is this of interest to the average moviegoer? Or to Marie, for that matter?
She’s heard it all before, reminding her boyfriend that his next film is an Angela Davis biopic, which might explain the Spike Lee comparisons. Malcolm wants to know why a movie can’t simply be a movie when Black artists are involved. (Levinson is not Black, which adds yet another level to the self-aware movie’s already meta sense of representation.)
Malcolm’s obsession with/digression about identity politics doesn’t occupy all that much room in the film — at least, not until the Los Angeles Times review breaks about an hour later, sending Malcolm into a fresh rant about the double standards at play. More central to the couple’s conversation is how he sees her: Marie recognizes that Malcolm’s film was at least partially inspired by her life, and she’s upset that he forgot to thank her at the premiere. It goes deeper than that, but calling him out on his oversight is the first truth laid bare between them.
In theory, Marie should be the only critic who counts. Malcolm has reached a level of success where he’s surrounded by sycophants, and as she points out, “I’m the only person who tells you you’re being an asshole when you’re being an asshole.” Malcolm clearly needs to be challenged by her, and though he talks like someone who’s spent a fair amount of time in analysis (his father was a therapist, we learn), he’s defensive whenever Marie calls out his narcissism. These two lovers have been together long enough to know one another’s weak spots, but he’s the only one who exploits them, getting too personal when he goes on the attack.
Levinson has written “Malcolm & Marie” like a punchy, too-articulate-for-2am play, one that unfolds almost in real time over the course of the evening, but it’s the performers who keep all the sparring from feeling staged. The characters are constantly moving through the house, which creates a sexy dynamism as the disagreement points in one of two possible directions: It’s either an elaborate act of foreplay, in which they attack one another prior to a passionate makeup session, or the pretext for a split, as hinted by Marie when she selects Dionne Warwick’s “Get Rid of Him” (just one of the movie’s smart music picks).
With Malcolm, Washington has far more to work with than he’s had with his other recent leading-man roles. In “BlackKklansman” and “Tenet,” he came across somewhat overwhelmed by the mission, whereas here, the actor explores the opposite idea: Malcolm’s tormented that he’s not as big a deal as everyone believes, nervous that Marie can see through him. And maybe she can. Superficial cockiness aside, the actor hints at how vulnerable his ego really is. By contrast, Zendaya wears Marie’s fragility on the surface, only to reveal the character’s strength through reaction shots and silence. It’s a remarkable turn from an actor asserting not only her place but that of so many unsung partners.
Levinson gives his stars roughly equal time, carefully modulating the sense of balance throughout. His direction seldom seems showy, and yet, we sense the intention behind each cut as power and control shifts throughout the movie. In recent years, several projects — among them “The Artist’s Wife” and “The Wife” — have challenged how readily a woman’s contributions to a male artist’s oeuvre can be overlooked, but those films felt agenda-driven.
Levinson has an agenda, too, though it’s considerably more sincere, compensating for one time when he forgot to thank his partner at a film premiere. From that moment of neglect blossoms this fiery testament to the collaborative nature of creativity. Marie is at once a muse, a shrink, a critic and a cheerleader for Malcolm. Uncomfortable as it can be to watch a couple fight, there’s something incredibly moving about a filmmaker compelled to dedicate an entire movie to acknowledging he couldn’t do this alone. And all it took was two actors, a tiny crew and a global pandemic to bring that sentiment out into the open.