The Problem with Malcolm
Or, a mediocre artist yells at his “muse” for almost two hours straight.
(Image from W Magazine)
I think we can retire the artist-muse relationship, which has long outlived its proper funerary date, for good.
I am talking, of course, about Netflix’s recent release Malcolm & Marie, which arrived in stormy form embattled by every various kind of critique. (They’re too numerous to link, so I’ll let you go find them yourself.) This essay isn’t about the film’s artistic or cinematic merits, or the optics of a white filmmaker making a story about Black creatives. The former requires a different review altogether, and the latter is an argument I’m not qualified to make. No, this takes aim at a much larger, entrenched, and insidious impulse, though I’m certainly not the first do so, nor will I be the last.
The last male-artist-female-muse movie I can remember of note is Phantom Thread, an endlessly quotable and clever deconstruction of the trope, but by 2017 the premise already felt so antiquated. I am not suggesting, of course, that this dynamic isn’t real — it is very real. I know, because I was subject to this very dynamic myself! (Back when I identified as a woman, and you can argue that my desire to fall deeper into the gender troubles that I’d experienced since youth was a partial result of this experience.) Like Malcolm, one of my exes wrote a short film about my experiences as an Asian American woman in a white, corporate workplace. This was, of course, during a time when he was effortlessly unemployed and I was working full-time as a receptionist in an environment where I was constantly and consistently sexually harassed. When I got home from my job, I still had to do the chores around the house because he “didn’t want to feel like a housewife.” I’d like to point out that he never exactly asked me for permission to write about me, though I suppose we never do about our subjects, nor did he, a white cis man, ask me to explicate on gender and race dynamics in a professional environment. But he did later strong-arm me into storyboarding the script; in retrospect, I find it cruelly humorous to imagine myself bent over the pages, made to illustrate the uncomfortable details of my own abuse.
You would think that there isn’t much to complain about being a female muse; after all, we adore quite a lot of them in cinematic history. Anna Karina to Jean-Luc Godard, Liv Ullman to Ingmar Bergman, you could potentially class Gena Rowlands as John Cassavetes’ muse, who, given the film’s thematic and visual similarities to Faces, might’ve been inspirations for Malcolm & Marie. But let’s not kid ourselves here. The female muse was created for the male gaze. The female muse was made for looking. Because why isn’t the reverse (female artist, male muse) true just as often? It reveals what we don’t think of women as: proactive. We don’t allow them to be the protagonists of their story or the creative geniuses that enthrall a world. Sometimes, we don’t think of them at all.
We talk a lot about agency for female characters as if that word were a trading card, easily passed back and forth for cultural currency. We all want agency for women. Does a female hero have agency. Does the woman put in a victim situation have enough agency to get out of it. But rarely do we actually know what it looks like. You could say Marie has agency because she makes choices all night long — to say the things she says, to fight back, to stay. But I maintain that she doesn’t — not metatextually, and not within the text itself. Marie doesn’t get to control how her story is presented in Malcolm’s film; even when Malcolm professes it’s not only her life, he still stole from the breaths of other girls’ skeletons. And Marie doesn’t get to walk out on Malcolm either, because of the constraints of the film. I kept asking myself and my friends who’ve seen the movie — “why is she still with this guy?” Just seven minutes in and already I wished I could reach through my screen and punch this fictional character in the face.
Listen, I am no stranger to abusive relationships. It’s hard to leave an abuser you’re in love with. I’m also familiar with the ways we often cause destruction in our own relationships, either through personality disorders, complex PTSD, or ADHD. But speaking to my female and afab friends, many of whom have also suffered emotional abuse, we agreed that the movie was hard to sit through. Not because we didn’t want to see depictions of emotional abuse — which I would argue we need more of — but because Malcolm & Marie didn’t seem to have a point outside of “we need conflict to drive a film starring only two people for a hundred minutes.”
I’m more interested, say, in the ways that emotional abuse in artist-muse relationships seem endemic. Not lovely Gena and John, who were more creative partners than anything and on this basis are excluded from example, but certainly Anna and Jean-Luc, Liv and Ingmar (the latter duo explored in a documentary with that exact title, if you’re interested). Karina’s relationship with Godard was famously explosive, but many probably don’t know, or want to admit, that he basically exploited her. There’s a story I used to laugh at about how Godard left Karina in Paris for three weeks to visit Bergman in Sweden without telling her; now, I know it to be downright sadistic, considering how Godard had reconstructed her life to revolve solely around him. Later, after their split, Karina made her directorial debut. The French public was unkind to her. She wasn’t allowed to be considered a serious auteur, though she had been writing stories since she was sixteen. Her audacity to think she was also dulled her shine, so her acting career declined soon after. Your average cinephile’s most potent image of Anna Karina is still crystallized in her early 20’s — young, pretty, smiling cheekily in black and white, never permitted to progress past her immaturity. Why don’t we know her as an older, mature woman, a film director, a storyteller able to reflect discerningly on her past?
So many times have creative, intelligent, lively women been sacrificed on the altar of male genius. In more ways than one, but especially the female muse. In this dynamic, there is no reciprocity: the male artist takes and takes and takes from the woman, filling up his own ego, becoming the serious and self-serving world around which everything is made to fall towards, heavy. Life so often imitates art. If women only see the limits of what they’re restricted to be, then how are they supposed to ever think they can be more?
My ex, like Malcolm, also loved the way my mind worked. How I saw the world, et al. He said that I changed his views on Godard and Akerman and others, and then turned around and stole the words right out of my mouth. The problem with being a muse is that a muse has no agency. A muse is a sockpuppet. We the audience project everything onto the muse: our desires, our sorrows, our perception of our own lives, our perception of theirs. But a muse does not get to speak: a muse’s words are transmuted by its speaker, the artist. It is never the muse’s genius that is praised. It is never the muse’s mind we see, however much the male artist may tell her that it is precisely what he loves about her.
I am tired of these movies not because they don’t depict a truth, but because they perpetuate it. Even though I was a writer with informed opinions on film long before I met my ex, when I was around him, it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that I might have a thing or two to say about movies. Who knows, maybe I should’ve spoken up more, or wasn’t assertive enough. But no one had even bothered to ask. And then afterwards, for a long time, even I began to believe that I had nothing worthwhile left to say.
Marie: Out of everything I said, “mediocre” is what stuck with you?
Malcolm: I just wanna know if you actually believe it.
If you’d like to discuss Malcolm & Marie further, come join Anti-Racist Movie Club for our virtual screening + discussion on Saturday, February 20 at 4PM PST / 7PM EST! We’ll be digging into everything here, including the film’s depiction of emotional abuse and gaslighting, and a white filmmaker’s use of Black voices. Hope to see you there!