Malcom, Marie, and Emotional Labor

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Michael-Michelle Pratt
·5 min read
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Photo credit: DOMINIC MILLER/NETFLIX © 2021
Photo credit: DOMINIC MILLER/NETFLIX © 2021

From Harper's BAZAAR

Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie became a spark for conversation as soon as it was released. Helmed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson and starring Zendaya and John David Washington, the film incited discussion with its meta commentary against film critics. But though Malcolm & Marie does allocate much of its runtime to Malcolm (and by extension, Levinson) airing out his grievances with criticism, the largest overarching narrative within the film is the emotionally abusive relationship itself. A concept that could’ve really engaged with the true severity of the emotional abuse, the emotional labor women do in relationships, the plight of the female muse that viewers would encounter when sitting down to watch this film. However, Levinson and, in turn, the audience engaged with unresolved grievances.

Yes, Malcolm & Marie centers on the frustrations that an up-and-coming director, Malcolm, has with the receptions to his latest work—most notably from “the white lady from the LA Times.” But, while Malcolm mansplains to Marie—and by extension the viewer—that everyone around him is incapable of understanding his work, or basks in the glory of his accomplishment, Marie is doing the real work of the relationship. She plays the role of the supportive partner by listening to him ramble on about film criticism, even joining in at times to soothe his ego; taking care of all the daily duties of running a household that go unnoticed, as she so eloquently explains in the closing monologue; and bending over backward in the beginning of the film to diffuse an argument, because she can foresee its unproductivity. As Malcolm takes congratulatory laps around the house to James Brown's "Down and Out in New York City," Marie makes Malcolm dinner (a bowl of macaroni and cheese) and tidies up the bedroom. From the moment we meet this couple, there is a clear rhythm and delegation of tasks we’re all too familiar with.

As the film goes on, it begins to explore the toxicity of emotional abuse and self-accountability—topics that are rarely discussed in depth when it comes to relationships in cinema and society at large. The couple’s relationship was based upon an uneven power dynamic from the start: Twenty-year-old Marie overdosed in a market and was rescued by Malcolm, who then sent her to rehab. Ever since, he has held the act over her head as a reason for her to be eternally indebted to him, thus placing himself in an eternal god complex. “I checked you into rehab. I went to group therapy with you. I fucking supported you every step of the way,” Malcolm spews cruelly during one of their arguments. “When you got depressed, when you were on so many meds you couldn’t fuck for a year, I was there for you.” Malcolm holds all the cards and all the resources, and seems to be the only source of support for Marie.

During another point of their all-night dispute, Malcolm retorts, “You’re not the first broken girl I’ve known, fucked, or dated.” He outs himself as an emotionally manipulative partner with a pattern for young and vulnerable women. It begs the question, Did Malcolm seek out Marie because she would depend on him and never leave him? A red flag is raised as he takes every painful moment she’s shared and throws it back in her face. He mocks her addiction and her suicide attempt—the very issues he used from her life as inspiration and a blueprint for his film. “How about you be honest about the real reason you were there for me?” Marie presses Malcolm. “I was good fucking material. That’s why you stuck by me. Because I was a story.” She goes on to say, “It was a world of emotions you weren’t used to seeing so fucking close. One that you could continue watching for as long as you were there for me.” Marie brings up the point in this one monologue, but it is never discussed at length or allowed deserved time to breathe.

Conversations such as these would have only been realized by characters who felt like tangible people rather than ideas. As I watched Malcolm & Marie, it seemed as if Levinson wrote the film to justify his own gripes with film discourse to himself and those who consume media, rather than produce a character study on unhealthy relationship patterns or a reflective exploration about one’s self. The characters don’t know themselves or each other well enough to love and hate each other as they do. As Levinson seemed to try to combat and get in front of criticism while simultaneously cementing himself as a groundbreaking filmmaker and genius, he ultimately did neither and did not flesh out what could've been a glorious film with the right focus.

Malcolm & Marie isn’t a love story or a story about love, which is what it claims to be in its opening scenes. It is a tale of a young traumatized woman entrapped in a relationship with a man who values her only by what he can process and profit from her, leaving her unable to heal so that he can shine. What we get is an internalized dialogue about harbored resentment, which in turn becomes a larger and meta dialogue that altogether renders Marie’s struggles invisible. She shouldn’t have had to ask for acknowledgement from Malcolm, her creator, or the audience.

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