Giulia has just finished her final year at King’s with a degree in Philosophy, and she is currently studying for her Master’s in Curating the Art Museum at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is passionate about history, art, queerness and queer representation in pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, war and family narratives, genealogy and anything else human.
[Featured Image: Screenshot from the movie Malcolm & Marie, with Marie (Zendaya) on the left and Malcolm (John David Washington) on the right.]
Trigger warning: this article contains discussions of gaslighting and mental and verbal abuse.
Spoiler warning: this article contains spoilers for Malcolm & Marie
Malcolm & Marie is a black and white, ninety-minute Netflix drama filmed during the pandemic, starring Zendaya and John David Washington as the main (and sole) characters.
From a certain point of view, the movie is a masterpiece: Emmy-winner Zendaya is a powerhouse, her acting so compelling that we can’t take our eyes off her, and Washington showcases an impressive range after appearing in Christopher Nolan’s controversial movie Tenet (2020) in the role of The Protagonist. The movie is set in Los Angeles, in an isolated house in the middle of nowhere with windows and mirrors that allow for beautiful and intriguing camerawork, with the audience peeking into the house and into Malcolm and Marie’s relationship.
I thought I knew what I was in for when I decided to watch Malcolm & Marie: marketed as a romantic drama and released just a handful of days before Valentine’s Day, Netflix described it as a movie about ‘a filmmaker and his girlfriend’ returning home from his directorial debut, going through a night of ‘smoldering tensions and painful revelations’ that will nevertheless ‘push them toward a romantic reckoning.’ In reality, Malcolm & Marie should come with a trigger warning, because it is anything but. What Malcolm & Marie is, is a film about a toxic relationship and an incredibly powerful portrayal of mental and verbal abuse.
What is worrying, in addition to Netflix’s marketing material, are the handful of reviews that seem to be praising the movie for its accurate portrayal of the ups and downs of a relationship, for telling the reality of love in all its forms, some of them even trying to establish which side was winning the argument.
The movie begins with the couple coming home from the premiere of Malcolm’s movie. He is so high on excitement that he fails to realise that Marie is smoking a cigarette and preparing some mac and cheese while being visibly upset. When he finally notices and asks her what the problem is, a good ten minutes into the movie, we are immediately warned by Zendaya that ‘nothing productive is going to be said tonight.’ Nevertheless, we find out very soon the reason she’s angry: in his speech, Malcolm has forgotten to thank Marie for her support and contribution to the movie, a movie that just happens to be based on her life and on her painful past with addiction and drug-abuse.
Malcolm immediately rejects this interpretation and the movie proceeds by alternating arguments to moments of stall, with Zendaya trying to bring up her feelings while he constantly tries to undermine her and prove her wrong. The arguments revolve around the events of the night but, in reality, they run much deeper, reaching the roots of their relationship and their past together.
The first time we encounter the word abuse is fifteen minutes into the movie, when in reply to Malcolm’s ‘You’re mentally unstable, fucking delusional!’ she says ‘are you actually yelling and belittling me from across this house because you are too busy eating mac and cheese? Do you know how disturbing it is that you can compartmentalise to such a degree that you can abuse me while eating mac and cheese?’
We get into the movie expecting to be prompted to take a side, but the reality of it is that there is no side to take, because there is no argument to be truly had: we’ve all been into arguments that escalated to the point of screaming, but the difference lies in the fact that while all Zendaya’s character is doing is trying to make Malcolm listen to her and to her legitimate reasons for being upset, Malcolm constantly undermines her as well as attempting to manipulate her into thinking that she shouldn’t be feeling that way.
Emotions aren’t up for discussion. The emotions I feel are entirely my own, and they can only be right because they are the product of my experience of a certain situation at any given moment: we can discuss on the reasons why I am feeling what I am feeling, you can try to argue that my reaction was exaggerated, that it comes from a place other than the events that prompted it, but what you can never do is invalidating my emotions, because that is emotional manipulation and textbook abuse.
Malcolm’s bouts of rage are punctuated by completely ego-centered monologues on the function of art and the role of movie critique, as well as outburst against the white LA Times movie critic who wrote a positive review of the movie and reduced it to Malcolm’s identity as a black man. A significant monologue of almost 10 minutes, all happening while Zendaya listens and quietly chuckles to herself during one of the rare moments of stall, shows us the impact of Malcolm’s emotional distance and dissociation.
We get to a turning point in the movie when Malcolm, after Marie gives him a taste of his own toxicity by telling him that he’s only with her for a story, brings up her suicide attempt while telling Marie that she should be glad he stuck with her through it all.
Perhaps the most terrifying scene of the movie and truly, for me, the point of no return in terms of rendition, is the scene that immediately follows: Marie has retreated in the bathtub for a moment of peace, when Malcolm intervenes and asks her if she truly believes that he’s mediocre. ‘This is the only thing you got from that?’ she says.
Malcolm then proceeds to terrify her to a whole other level, starting off with ‘You wanna play dirty? Well let’s go, I promise I can hurt you ten times worse. You’re a fuckin’ featherweight, a level-one boss. I can snap you like a twig,’ and then continues to tell her that her desire to be recognised for her contribution is not born out of a genuine desire for recognition, but out of a narcissistic need for validation due to her being an addict. ‘But you’re an addict, right? That’s what makes you fuckin’ unique, right? That’s what makes your contribution so much more significant, right? Get the entire fuck outta here. You’re not the first broken girl I’ve known, fucked or dated.’
He then continues his monologue to shame her for her sexual preferences and kinks -from which, by the way, he benefits from- that he links to a supposed emotional need for degradation in real life. Consensual kinks aren’t and should not be mistaken for the same thing as verbal abuse inflicted upon someone without their consent, with the only purpose of hurting them.
Malcolm then follows with a series of declarations of love that serve the purpose of demonstrating yet again the toxic dynamic of this couple, with Marie’s being unable to escape from it at any given moment – we wonder why she doesn’t leave him, but Malcolm has already told us. By telling her that she’s an addict, by telling her that she’s only alive because of him and that he saved her, by constantly gaslighting her and abusing her, it becomes clear to the audience that she has become, to some extent, dependent on him, and her analysis of the situation and her acknowledgement of his toxicity are, albeit incredibly lucid, clearly not enough for her to leave him.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, Zendaya delivers the thank you speech that Marie wished she had received that night, a speech in which he acknowledges her role and her importance, as well as her capacity to accept him for what he is and for not holding it against him when he is unable to communicate his feelings and apologise for his emotional shortcomings in real life, but can only do it by pouring his emotions into his work.
‘You’re good, you’re set. The man I’m looking at, is as good as he’s gonna get. This is it. You yelling at me in a fucking bathtub about how you’re gonna snap me like a twig, is the best and the worst of who you will be in this relationship,’ she says at the end, yet another demonstration that she doesn’t see any room for improvement and despite it she still cannot make herself leave.
This is when we know there’s no resolution waiting for us; we hope we’ll find them in a different place from where they’ve started at the beginning of the movie, but we know that it won’t be the case. Before going to bed, he finally whispers to her ‘I’m sorry. Thank you,’ but we are so emotionally drained – and they are too – after ninety minutes of emotional abuse that we cannot find any reassurance in his words. They aren’t meant to.
They keep repeating, the both of them, ‘don’t be cruel,’ but there’s so much visceral cruelty in this film that it is almost difficult to breathe after a while. It’s meant to be: at first we mistake this uncomfortable feeling for boredom, because nothing is happening and we feel the movie is not getting anywhere. That’s because it isn’t, and it’s the whole point. It’s a tragedy in the way all tragedies seek for resolution and cannot find it.
The morning after, Malcolm wakes up and she’s not there. For a second we hope, despite knowing all we know of their dynamic, that she has run away. But in the end, she just went to get some air. And there they are again.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the movie is absolutely majestic for what it is and for what it sets out to be – an accurate portrayal of an abusive relationship, and not a couple going through a rough patch. But the fact that so many people seem to be mistaking this movie with the perfectly normal ups and downs of an healthy relationship is worrying in itself, and definitely serves as a warning of the insidious nature of abuse, and a reminder that violence doesn’t always come with cuts and bruises. There’s a tendency to romanticise toxicity and mental health problems as if they were portrayals of love, when they are anything but. Which is why, when the credits are rolling at the end of the movie and we hear the lyrics of OutKast’s Liberation, ‘There’s a fine line between love and hate,’ it comes across as slightly tone-deaf. There is indeed a fine line between love and hate, but whatever that line might be, Malcolm & Marie is not it.