The title characters of Malcolm & Marie mix art and love to reveal toxic truths about their relationship.

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Malcolm & Marie, now available on Netflix.

Art and love are realms of passion and expression, making for a bombastic collision of the two when combined in a relationship. Sam Levinson’s latest tour de force, Malcolm & Marie, probes into the problems that arise out of this unstable combination and if there is a way to resolve them.

Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker about to break big in Hollywood after the premiere of his film that bears a striking resemblance to the real-life struggles of his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya). Marie is a former actress and drug addict who now supports her boyfriend’s career, but, after being left out of Malcolm’s speech at the premiere, is fed up with being second to his art. Over a single night, the two rehash the same arguments about blurring lines of reality and the need for authenticity, which leads to some ugly behavior and painful truths.

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Malcolm is so wrapped up in his art that he is barely present for his actual relationship, thus making Marie feel neglected as a person and only visible to him as a fiction he can use for his film. This creates an interesting dynamic between them, as the only way Marie can communicate to Malcolm is through performance. Their arguments reach theatrical heights of melodrama that both of them are attracted to in a toxic fashion. Marie thinks Malcolm’s raging soliloquy about a review that doesn’t understand his vision is endearing, and Malcolm professes his love for Marie after she performs an emotionally-grueling scene to prove that she can act.

Due to the fact that both of them are living in the realm of art, where expression can be beautiful and painful for its own sake, their concept of love is a self-serving means to live out these fantasies of beauty and pain. In short, they love to argue in order to create passionate performances that idolize destructive feelings in each other. This dynamic should not be called “love,” since it’s more like gaslighting for the stage. Love is not pain, and art should not idolize the beauty in pain.

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Malcolm and Marie both know how to hurt each other in order to get the most poignant performance out of one another. Marie calls Malcolm an unoriginal fraud with nothing new to say, which tears down Malcolm’s biggest achievement: his art. And Malcolm calls Marie a “nobody” who gloms onto Malcolm’s success, which destroys Marie’s sense of self that she already struggles to maintain. Through his film, Malcolm essentially got to write Marie’s story, which has bled into their relationship and the way she views herself in real life.

Marie plays out the story of Malcolm’s perception of her as a tortured soul prone to fits of passion and agony but never relief. When the lines of art and reality are wiped away, people tend to act according to the fantasies they have blueprinted in their minds, as a sort of dramatic narrative for their life, even though films are not a faithful representation of reality. Ironically, the two debate authenticity, although neither of them has a genuine moment the entire night.

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Although their relationship is as toxic as Chernobyl, Levinson provides a glimmer of hope for the couple. In the final scene, Marie is outside of the house alone and Malcolm comes to stand by her side. This picture represents what each of them needs to do to reconcile their issues. Marie needs space of her own to rebuild her true sense of self without Malcolm’s artistic vision of her, and Malcolm needs to pay attention to the real Marie, independent of his filmmaking.

Love can be a simple act of saying “thank you,” not a showy declaration that strives for poignancy. Unlike a film that ties its conflicts up before the credits roll, the pain Malcolm and Marie inflict on each other will last for years. However, once they learn that while good drama may thrive on conflict, love is a quiet abiding act, they may have a rewarding relationship.

Malcolm & Marie, written and directed by Sam Levinson and starring Zendaya and John David Washington, is available on Netflix.

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