Film Review: Malcolm & Marie
Directed by Sam Levinson. US, 2021, 106 minutes.
Available on Netflix.
Against good taste, good reason, and all my instincts as an evaluator of the cinematic form, I find myself firmly on the side of Sam Levinson: the unsubtle, pretentious, exploitative, tone-deaf, and sometimes outright stupid nepotism-case director of Assassination Nation (2018) and Euphoria (2019-). There’s something about his filmmaking I find difficult to resist. Maybe it’s that his go-for-broke style and his complete lack of an artistic filter occasionally produces moments of brilliance that—although they may feel like the two times a day when a stopped clock is right—are hard to imagine being produced by anyone else working at his commercial level. Take for example the very first scene of Euphoria, where the camera follows a baby emerging from the womb and then smash cuts to the Twin Towers collapsing. As a way of establishing the show’s exploration of the post-9/11 generation, it’s literal, obvious, and distasteful—but it’s also sort of undeniable, a bold and forceful visual idea that effectively combines computer-generated imagery with archival footage and makes its point without any pretense toward artistic respectability.
There are no gestures of that kind in Levinson’s respectable new film Malcolm & Marie, which depicts a late-night quarrel between a director and his girlfriend across its entire runtime. Instead of the bright, colorful, neon club-lighting of his previous work, we get moody black-and-white. The energy and speed of his jumpy, ADHD storytelling rhythms is replaced by a commitment to real-time linearity. And the whole thing is shot on 35mm, so there’s no incorporation of mixed shooting formats and media forms.
What accounts for this change in style? At least two factors. First, the film was made in the summer of 2020, which makes it the first Hollywood film to be financed and produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Levinson’s attempts to adapt the practice of his craft to the limitations of the times, something that carries over to the new season of Euphoria, speaks to his eagerness to capture the zeitgeist, to be an artist who is emblematic of the current moment. That tendency has made his career and is inseparable from what makes him interesting, but it does not serve him well here.
The times, in Levinson’s mind, call for small-scale chamber pieces where one or two characters talk… and talk and talk and talk and talk. His recent output calls for the skills of an Albee-level wordsmith and dramatist, but he seems unable to avoid turning these long conversations into opportunities for his characters to lay out their full psychological profiles (at least the most recent episode of Euphoria—Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob—drops the pretense and shows an actual therapy session for one of its characters). Even worse is how he uses his characters to air cultural grievances that are better suited for post-movie Q&A rants. Levinson is neither emotionally incisive enough nor intellectually formidable enough to make either of those two modes worth listening to.
This new pandemic style exposes another of his weaknesses: an inability to rein in actors. Much of what we see onscreen from leads Zendaya and John David Washington feels like first-draft performance ideas, or a film school acting exercise. A better director could find a way to iron out the kinks of their performances, but Levinson seems happy to let them fly off the rails. (I wonder if the proliferation of “fuck”s thrown around in the film was present in the screenplay, or if Zendaya and Washington added them as a way to avoid flubbing their lines during the film’s many long takes.)
The second factor accounting for Levinson’s stylistic change is his subject matter. This is a film about adults rather than teenagers—so while his previous aesthetic was driven by a desire to capture the Zoomer experience, now Levinson is trying to make a serious adult film with serious adult themes and a serious adult aesthetic. Therefore the shooting style is removed, emotionally distant, and self-consciously arty: Where Assassination Nation was mimicking early Godard, Malcolm & Marie seems to take its inspiration from Antonioni instead. But try as he may to mimic the icy gaze of a La Notte (1961), Levinson can’t conceal his fundamental immaturity, his fondness for shock value, his propensity for big emotions and big ideas. So what his cool camera fails to do then falls to his actors to do instead. In that context, their shouting, crying, dancing, and endless monologuing as they try to communicate lofty ideas about relationships and the artistic process becomes the sublimated expression of Levinson’s outrageous streak. It may seem strange to say about such an exhausting film, but the problem with Malcolm & Marie is not that it’s too indulgent, but that it’s too restrained. [★]