The characters in the Malcolm & Marie title 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, causing a bombastic collision of the two when combined in a relationship. Sam Levinson’s last tour de force, Malcolm And marie, investigate the problems that arise from this unstable combination and if there is a way to solve them.

Malcolm (John David Washington) is a filmmaker on the brink of success in Hollywood after his film’s release who 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, she is fed up with being outdone by her art. During a single night, the two of them repeat the same arguments about blurring the lines of reality and the need for authenticity, leading to unpleasant behaviors and painful truths.

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Malcolm is so wrapped up in his art that he is barely present in their actual relationship, making Marie feel neglected as a person and only visible to him as fiction that he can use for his film. This creates an interesting dynamic between them, as the only way Marie can communicate with Malcolm is through acting. Their plots reach theatrical heights of melodrama that appeal to both in a toxic way. Marie believes Malcolm’s furious soliloquy about a revision not understanding her vision is endearing, and Malcolm professes his love for Marie after she puts on an emotionally draining scene to prove that she can act.

Due to the fact that they both live in the realm of art, where expression can be beautiful and painful on its own, their concept of love is a selfish means of living out these fantasies of beauty and pain. In short, they love arguing to create passionate performances that idolize destructive feelings between them. This dynamic should not be called “love” as it is more like gas lighting for the stage. Love is not pain and art should not idolize beauty in pain.

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Malcolm and Marie know how to hurt each other to get the most heartwarming performance from each other. Marie calls Malcolm an unoriginal fraud with nothing new to say, destroying Malcolm’s greatest achievement: his art. And Malcolm calls Marie a “nobody” who clings to Malcolm’s success, destroying Marie’s sense of identity that she already struggles to maintain. Through his movie, Malcolm essentially got to write the story of Marie, who has bled into their relationship and the way she sees herself in real life.

Marie unfolds 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 blurred, people tend to act according to the fantasies they have drawn in their mind, as a kind of dramatic narrative of their life, even though the movies are not a faithful representation of reality. Ironically, the two debate authenticity, though neither of them have a genuine moment all night.

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Although their relationship is as toxic as Chernobyl, Levinson offers a ray of hope for the couple. In the final scene, Marie is outside the house alone and Malcolm comes to stand beside her. This image represents what each of them must do to reconcile their problems. Marie needs her own space to rebuild her true sense of herself without Malcolm’s artistic vision of her, and Malcolm must pay attention to the real Marie, regardless of her filmmaking.

Love can be a simple act of saying “thank you,” not a flashy statement that tries to be heartwarming. Unlike a movie that resolves its conflicts 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 can thrive in conflict, love is a silent and permanent act, they can 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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