When I first heard about the release of Malcolm & Marie I was immediately excited. Starring two of my favourite actors (Zendaya and John David Washington), written and directed by Sam Levinson and completely centring around one night in a relationship seemed like the key ingredients of what would become my new favourite film. But when it was finally released and I sat down to watch it, I was quickly proven wrong. Not to say Malcolm & Marie was a bad film, but the entire thing felt… disappointing. Because what should have been a masterclass in writing, was mostly a repetitive, overlong story of two people whose relationship seemed doomed from the first minute. While I couldn’t stop thinking about what exactly it was that had gone wrong, I remembered another film, one that did get that same premise right: Before Midnight.
Both Before Midnight and Malcolm & Marie feature a couple in a state of turmoil, and both films focus on one long argument between the two characters. Yet, where Malcolm & Marie drags on, Before Midnight was a moving study of marriage and love. So what exactly does one right and the other doesn’t?
To start this of, it is important to note that Before Midnight is the third instalment in a highly-praised trilogy, and that by the time we watch it, we’re already familiar with our two main characters and automatically more invested. However, even when we view the films separate from their respective contexts (Malcolm & Marie was shot during quarantine in a very short time), there are still clear differences in how the relationships are portrayed.
These differences are apparent from the first scenes we see. In Malcolm & Marie, the couple arrives home after the premiere of Malcolm’s film. Malcolm is celebrating its success, while Marie is clearly annoyed about something. The argument begins soon after, as Malcolm starts to question Marie about the source of her anger, only to realise it was his own fault – he didn’t thank her in his acceptance speech even though the film was based on her life. While Marie’s anger is completely understandable, with the argument starting five minutes into an almost two hour long film, we barely get time to see any real love between our characters.
Before Midnight, on the other hand, begins the story with the couple (Celine and Jesse) on holiday with their children. They discuss their children and their careers, in a conversation many couples will recognise. There is no immediate conflict, but we get to know our characters and their relationship (even without the knowledge of the previous two films) and we get the first glimpses of underlying issues. When they have dinner with friends, they’re asked about their romantic first meeting – depicted in the first film – and their respective reactions to this question, again tells us more about their current relationship.
The set-up of these two films is vital in how we process the rest of the storylines. For any film to work, an audience needs to be invested in the characters to an extent. Even if those characters go on to make mistakes and show themselves to be flawed human beings, we can get an understanding of where they’re coming from, or in what other ways they normally behave. In stories that completely centre on one relationship, it’s vital we understand why these two people are together in the first place. Even if we see the relationship is doomed and they are destined to break-up, for an audience to be moved we still need to feel as if there is something to be lost.
In Malcolm & Marie, the two start shouting some incredibly hurtful insults at each other the second their argument starts. This lack of build up not only means the film reaches its climax ten minutes into the story (and stays there for most of the remaining time), it also indicates a complete lack of love within the relationship. Each argument they have seems to be a competition in who can hurt the other the most. And while this can happen in a fight, if we don’t get to see any other side of the relationship, it is very hard to grasp why they don’t simply break-up.
Before Midnight adds a nuance to the arguments that Malcolm & Marie lacks. Because we have seen Celine and Jesse share loving moments together in the beginning of the film, we want these two to work through their problems, even as the arguments reach a breaking point. We are invested in their love, because we get an understanding of each character’s wants and needs, and we realise what’s at stake. Even when the two hurt each other, we know where they’re coming from, and we still empathise.
Another problem within Malcolm & Marie is the unequal power dynamic. And with that I don’t necessarily mean the much discussed age difference (which I personally don’t think is an issue at all), it lies more within the power shifts within each argument. As Malcolm and Marie each take turns delivering long monologues in which they express many of the issues they have with the other, their arguments don’t hold equal weight. Whereas Marie appears to have genuine reasons to be hurt and angry, nothing she says ever comes close to being as hurtful as Malcolm’s comments. Malcolm is mostly portrayed as an angry, arrogant person and he seems to try to break Marie’s confidence any chance he gets. With this dynamic, it is very hard to be even remotely understanding of his side of the argument. He’s not allowed any emotional back story through which we could potentially see a more vulnerable side of him. Instead, it is Marie that is continuously in a position in which she doesn’t hold the upper hand, even when she is the one expressing her anger.
Before Midnight allows the power dynamic to constantly shift between Celine and Jesse. This helps us get a deeper understanding of each person’s point of view and their argument flows in a way that is both realistic and deeply moving. Both characters have equal reason to be angry while also being allowed moments of vulnerability. With their back stories revealed throughout the first half of the film, we are allowed a look into their deepest insecurities and desires adding extra weight to their argument.
When finishing Before Midnight, you feel heartbroken and exhausted, having just spent almost two hours emotionally invested in the future of a fictional couple. With Malcolm & Marie you can’t help but think this couple should have never been together in the first place. That’s not to say Malcolm & Marie is an inherently bad film, it’s mostly disappointing. With two incredible actors and glimpses within the script of what could have been great, it simply feels rushed and repetitive. Comparing the two makes us realise that, to make any argument in film believable, both characters’s wants and needs need to hold equal weight and their relationship needs to be explained to an extent we can be invested in it. Before Midnight hits the spot on every level, whereas Malcolm & Marie sadly misses.