Being John Malkovich

This is a film about film, right? Malkovich is the screen through which our desires and ambitions are mediated. The power of fantasy can lead to us realising who we really are, but also inspire absolutely lunatic behaviour.

But let's start from the beginning. Maxine is the foxy femme fatale and a source of erotic obsession for all the characters in the film. For Craig and Lottie, marriage and the prospect of children is disrupted by the fantasy of having an affair and subsequently of inhabiting (or fucking) a celebrity for 15 minutes. Interestingly the film circles back to having a family at the end. Being John Malkovich is an avenue through which Lottie and Maxine discover that they are queer and circuitously affirm their love for each other. Mediated by Malkovich, they form a relationship and create a truly happy family with daughter in tow.

John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz has a darker fate. His sexual frustration turn him into an abusive husband and a quasi-rapist. He is a failed artist given the opportunity to inhabit and control a successful one. It's a situation played for comedy, but Craig's jealousy and violence lead to a suitable punishment. His ability to manipulate others is denied to him, and he is condemned to observe a family life that he rejected because he indulged his daydreams of affairs and unearned success. He ends up trapped in a film he can no longer direct – the object of his desires forever denied to him.

The film is an absurdist comedy, but also a tragedy, with a bit of horror mixed in. Its meanings and significances are not entirely stable – Malkovich is also a portal through which a group of old people can escape death. Him tumbling into himself leads to a terrifying world where everyone is Malkovich, which could be a comment on self-obsession, or just a silly joke. There are more subtle threads to pull out though. The menagerie of animals Lottie looks after is clearly a way to displace her desire for a child, and a contrast is drawn with Craig's obsession with puppetry – wooden figurines that do exactly what he wants them to. This film packs a lot in and doesn't always show its workings. It takes its mad idea and tries out the different things that can be done with it. It's kind of great, and we're lucky the real Malkovich agreed to go along with it.

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