I was 25 when I met my ex-boyfriend. We locked eyes at a swanky lounge in Hell’s Kitchen, roughly a month before I made a permanent move to the New York City area. On paper, we fit. Both HBCU grads, both members of the Divine Nine, both interested in the arts—Broadway plays, Alvin Ailey performances. Both travelers. And while those things bonded us in the beginning, they weren’t enough to sustain us for the long haul. After the initial excitement of “fitting” faded away, in came the exhausting fights.
Watching Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie took me back to that time nearly a decade ago when naps would follow disagreements and coming to any sort of resolve entailed a marathon of texts and at least two glasses of wine. The movie, directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson and now streaming, should really come with a trigger warning. At its core it’s as much a film about a toxic relationship as it is a middle finger to the critics of creative expression. But beyond the obvious is a motif that lies below the surface of so many arguments between couples: a lack of appreciation and the need for reciprocity.
The pandemic-produced work begins as Marie (Zendaya) and Malcolm (John David Washington) return from the screening of his new movie. For a brief moment we revel in the excitement of the burgeoning writer and director who appears to have had a successful showing. But within moments we realize his partner, though complimentary and supportive of his success, doesn’t give off the same elation as her rambling beau.
For a subsequent two hours, viewers ride on a roller coaster of highs and lows, piecing together why that is and digging deeper into the flaws of a strikingly attractive couple whose skeletons are unearthed frame by frame. We find out that Marie is a former addict with a desire to act. And Malcolm, a Brooklyn director from a semi-privileged background, has seen his hopes for Hollywood often fall short. In the words of Rihanna, they found love in a hopeless place; years later the hopelessness of their relationship is starting to show through.
Malcolm helped Marie out of a dark period, but she makes her own serious contribution to the relationship. In addition to being his sounding board, his support, and at times his muse, she gives him the motivation he needs to keep pushing. Through sometimes unhinged squabbling between the troubled twosome, we see that Marie, though at times frustrating, is emotionally wrecked from Malcolm’s lack of appreciation. He’s riding a high. She’s dwelling in an inflicted low. And finding common ground after their tornado of emotions feels nearly impossible.