Marketing Complexity and Grief: Oscars 2021

The hope is that the Academy Awards is set to take place, in person, in some shape or form at the Dolby Theatre on the 25th April this year; but as Red says, hope can drive a man mad. Last years’ incredible win for Parasite was one of the last public events and since then it has been a year marred by postponements, broken dreams and promises, with studios cautiously pushing out tentpole releases time after time until they can be sure of ticket sales. As a result, a dearth of content plagued the industry right up until January and February, two months that were welcomed as the new November and December, the release window generally reserved for frenzied Oscar promotions. Marketing has never been more important for studios, particularly as word of mouth has gone completely virtual and nuanced targeting is desperately needed as they seek to promote their more artistic endeavours that explore themes such as complexity and grief.

Malcolm and Marie 

Marketing: Madly in Love 

I liked it. It’s not often that I say that because of the drivel that regularly clogs up the mainstream movie release schedule. Director Sam Levinson takes this couple on a meandering journey, who from their marketing tagline are ‘madly in love,’ superbly showing the complexities and contradictions of two people who are trying to make sense of their world after being bound together. Shot entirely in black and white, the setting is an understated supporting character in itself, enhancing how complex and nuanced arguments are anything but black and white.

Having recently starred in the horrendous Christopher Nolan film Tenet (please see Ten Things Wrong with Tenet) John David Washington means business here, charming and in command of his character. Opposite him is the effervescent Zendaya, a muse of Levinson’s in his renowned, teenage angst drama Euphoria. John David and Zendaya play the title characters, returning to a lavish Los Angeles pad in the Hidden Hills after the premiere of Malcolm’s movie. Both immaculately dressed, Malcolm bounds in, high on the creators’ drug of praise and acknowledgement from the evening, while Marie saunters in behind him. Her shimmering dress dazzles while her eyes are dead, stirring the mac and cheese pot with a chip on her shoulder. It’s not long before Malcolm realises she isn’t as ecstatic as he is, and the rest of the film picks away at every thought gnawing at their consciences.  

Everything unravels and quickly descends into a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe type of scenario, with vicious circles ensuing in every interaction, as the power dynamics ebb and flow. One loses the rag as the other stays rooted in reason, before long the raging and exasperated party throws mud and at the wall and some of it sticks, forcing the more docile party to rise up in indignation, and thus round and round it goes. On Malcolm’s part, there is a brilliant nod to his exasperation at identity politics, highlighting how it has become an ideological, unattainable fantasy which brings art closer and closer to the surface and away from the heart. Malcolm grapples with the contradiction of the elation coming from the success of his film, and the relative emptiness and hopelessness he feels towards the same identity-driven crowd who have praised him. Marie’s grievances are just as existential as her significant others, as she is plagued by her past as a teenage drug addict, and when a similar character appears in Malcolm’s movie, friction emerges between the two for how he allegedly portrayed her story on screen. 

Both characters air out their objections in their own way, and it’s difficult not to make the connection that they act as vessels for different parts of Sam Levinson’s inner demons, Zendaya acting out Sam’s private life, while John David takes his public life. Levinson explores how the modern world will paint you with the brush they see at first glance, in his case the relative privilege growing up as Barry Levinson’s son. This aspect is channeled through John David, ironically part of an acting dynasty himself. Meanwhile, Zendaya is hounded by her demons as a recovering addict, an experience the director is also intimately aware of. With Malcolm representing the apparent sheltered life of a Hollywood director and Marie charting his substance abuse, in this way we see two physical beings bound together and how difficult it is in practice to reconcile the two, but the ease at which other people are willing to do on his behalf. 

Malcolm and Marie was one of the first COVID friendly movies, where all actors were tested repeatedly in a house in Hollywood, and ironically the script in its weaker moments seems to have been overly sanitised too. It suffers from one too few rewrites and should have been kept in the oven longer to finesse some of the ideas. As the film draws to a close however it does its job and you wonder if that night gave the characters some true food for thought and they went their separate ways. Or as more often is the case they both retreated to their own siloes in the months that followed, growing further apart, the thought bubbles increasing to internal screams as they fail to be unheard, much less understood. As an audience we’re left not knowing, and in that sense the uncertainty is maddening but absolutely necessary in reminding us that complexity can’t be wrapped up neatly in a little bow. 

Pieces of a Woman

Marketing: It all hangs on Vanessa Kirby’s performance 

Remarkably, the Venice Film Festival managed to take place on the Lido last year, where Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman debuted to the smaller crowd. Vanessa Kirby’s performance blew them away and she came away with the festival’s Best Actress Volpi Cup. Ill-timed reports of her co-star Shia Leboeuf’s personal life didn’t affect the reception as much as Netflix may have feared, but this may have been alleviated by the campaigns strong drive for awards glory by centring the focus on Kirby herself. 

Pieces of a Woman charts the excruciating real-time situation of a home birth gone wrong. Kirby, who has never given birth in real life herself is immaculate in her portrayal as a soon to be, first-time mother, the dizzying excitement and apprehension are interchangeable as she is carted around the apartment from the bath to her bed. It works like an immersive theatre production, you can’t look away, entranced by the birth and horrified by the inevitable death of the child. That scene ends, you take a breath, it fades to black and unfortunately the rest of the movie pales in comparison as we watch both bereaved parents grappling with what they almost had. Kirby is remarkably resolute in her grief, taking it matter of factly and displaying little emotion while LaBoeuf in comparison is outwardly grieving, reaching out to her for some kind of understanding and reciprocity. When he doesn’t receive it, they drift irrevocably apart to opposite ends of the spectrum. The primary relationship is less interesting than the one between Kirby and her mother, played by the powerhouse that is Ellen Burstyn. Her mother, who believes the home birth was an error of judgement on her daughter’s part and is the primary reason she isn’t holding the baby in her arms. Burstyn is steadfast in her blame, laying it at the feet of the negligent midwife and initiates court proceedings on behalf of her daughter, who herself is becoming increasingly withdrawn and and indifferent. 

Kirby’s unfeeling demeanour is heartbreaking in a sequence where she is returning to her office job unexpectedly as her maternity leave is cut short. In another breathtakingly banal sequence at a family gathering, she floats gracefully through the surface-level empty small talk, trying to escape that high level interaction as her turmoil burns beneath. Ellen Burstyn caps off that scene with an Oscar-worthy outburst that will take your breath away as she stands for the old guard wanting to just ‘do the right thing’ and get justice, when it is the last thing her grieving daughter wants to pursue. In the end when the judicial angle is pursued, the showstopper scene with the trial is over the top and it never fails to baffle me why a character’s raisin d’etre always must be proclaimed in a court of law. Pieces of a Woman is held up by Kirby’s performance and enhanced by Burstyn’s, but there are elements missing that fails to put all the pieces back together and I don’t think that was deliberate

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