Malcolm & Marie (2021) stars Zendaya and John David Washington as a couple in turmoil. While their acting and chemistry, the movie’s aesthetic, and the script are electrifying and exciting, I was taken by the gorgeous house the couple lives in, thanks to a character’s job. The house is so beautiful and interesting that on my first watch, I had to pause the movie and do a quick sketch of it. The entire film takes place in this one setting, and the way they interact with space and the surrounding land is dynamic. 

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The real Caterpillar house in Malibu_Feldman Architecture

For context, this is a real house in Malibu, dubbed the Caterpillar house. The name should automatically convey its size and tucked away at the base of the hill, it seems easy to cocoon within it. But the footprint of the home is likely how it got its name. Designed by Feldman Architecture, the house incorporates several sustainable elements, allowing it to become the first LEED Platinum custom home in Malibu. The film does not use every aspect of the space, but what they do use is enough to leave you entranced by the home. 

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An Architectural Review of Malcolm & Marie - Sheet3
Malcolm & Marie’s opening shot_Netflix 2021

How to Appreciate the Home | Malcolm & Marie

The film opens on the house facing the sloping driveway, prominent in a third of the screen. A classic film and photography technique, it grounds the house forebodingly. The peacefulness of the night is broken by headlights appearing. We then enter the house with our couple, watching them make their way through the unusually tight, curved circulation leading to a wide-open floor plan. The lead actress walks to the bathroom through the only bedroom, and immediately you get a sense of the size of the space.

The size of the home is a detail that plays well in this movie, as it provides the perfect acoustics to blast music passive-aggressively and berate one another aggressively. Throughout the film, the pair rushes throughout the house, leaving you desperate for another lingering shot on the expansive windows. 

The windows of this home are nothing short of spectacular, and while they probably served a great technical purpose when shooting the movie, one can only dream what a warm Malibu day must feel like living there, softly blanketed in the sun. Curious minds might question how these massive windows could exist with no columns that I could see. 

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The result is a tight, slightly lit bed with a mattress resting a foot or two below the visible ground_Netflix 2021

How The Film Uses the Space

The design choices for the interior were brilliant for both the film and the home itself. It truly felt like a space multiple people have lived in, that allowed new parties to make it their own. At that point, I was especially grateful for the choice to film in black and white; one has to wonder what those colors may have looked like. 

Interestingly enough, the film’s aesthetic helps to showcase the house even better, allowing for dramatic contrast in every room. The large king bed with a headboard of windows in a dark room, the translucent matte partition in a bright bathroom across from the highly-stylized white porcelain tub, the minimalist cabinetry juxtaposed with modern stainless steel appliances. 

These are all details that could be noticed if the film were in color, but are much more interesting without. Even the leaf etchings in the windows stand out more because of the contrast of the film.

The house seems small as if to allow residents to make use of the surrounding land. A character in the film remarks this, but the theme is shown by the couple’s use of every sliding door in the house. Both characters escape the claustrophobic tension of the home by touring the sandy landscape around them. 

Claustrophobic is only the right word to use here when describing the hallway entrance or the couple’s arguing, but it is easy to understand how one could find the buried bedroom stifling. The room itself is only large enough to fit their bed and some clutter, yet the windows are wall to wall, taking up the top half of the space. The result is a tight, slightly lit bed with a mattress resting a foot or two below the visible ground.

The expansive backyard of the Caterpillar house_Feldman Architecture
The expansive backyard of the Caterpillar house_Feldman Architecture

The Biggest Lesson | Malcolm & Marie

The size of the house, its snug feeling, and the freedom beyond it is a dream house in many regards. But assess your relationship with your potential cohabitant ahead of time–the positive feelings of a house can turn negative quickly. The cozy cabin feel can become suffocating, the endless expanse drowning, the excessive windows creepy, and the below-ground bed morbid. 

Even the small concrete patio feels relaxing until the pair start their war back up again. The wrong people can make this house feel like a trap. But its beauty lies in accepting it at face value, recognizing how to appreciate the parts you never thought you would enjoy. 

Being in a fight with your significant other is similar to moving into a new house- and not just because one generally follows the otherbut because your new location cannot suddenly become whatever you want it to be. It is still exactly what you picked when you agreed to stay there, despite whatever your brain convinced you about it. At some point, you have to take the place as it is. 

Sure, you can make little changes to help the house fit you more, but after some time you will have made changes to fit the house, as well. Your perception of it will change, and hopefully, you can be glad to have something shelter you from the weather. But if you find it hard to thank the house for still standing when you need it, you should probably leave and find a house you can appreciate.

My quick sketch during my first watch of the film._Nia Smith


Nia Smith is an architecture student at Howard University. She uses her background in fashion to design spaces that are useful and beautiful. As an environmental advocate, Nia focuses on low-income housing made sustainably with circular design theories.