1999, Gramercy. Directed by Spike Jonze. John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, John Malkovich.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Promiscuous sexual encounters in impossibly bizarre situations simulating adultery, lesbianism, violation, and transsexualism; an implied lesbian relationship; sexual obsession and saturation-level sexual themes; possession of persons by outside forces.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Note: This article contains sexually explicit language that I could not avoid if I were to write a clear moral critique of this film. If you do not wish to read such material, I can confidently tell you from the outset that you will not under any circumstances wish to see this film. Other readers are free to continue reading and decide for themselves.
Being John Malkovich is a film of startling originality and creativity, a work of continual invention and hauntingly vivid imagery. First-time director Spike Jonze, who starred as the fourth of Three Kings in that equally bold and confident masterpiece, has here crafted a film of surreal whimsy and nightmarish black comedy that evokes the best of Terry Gilliam.
It is also a profoundly perverse and subversive film that smears into oblivion ordinarily clear boundaries of behavior, to the point that I hardly know how to classify the specific type of illicit sexual activity occurring on the screen — hence the hesitant language in the advisory notice above.
In a sense, nothing happens that is not consensual, heterosexual, casual fornication, since there is always one willing man and one willing woman and neither is married. But in this case the man is John Horatio Malkovich (played by actor John Gavin Malkovich — the variant middle name presumably signifying that Malkovich the character is not identical to Malkovich the actor; rather as the Dante who appears as a character in The Divine Comedy is not identical to the real Dante writing the Comedy).
And John Horatio has an odd Achilles’ heel, a vulnerability not in fact in his heel but in his head: Somewhere in Manhattan there is a certain room on a certain floor in a certain building, and in this room there is a portal, and anyone who passes through the portal enters for a quarter of an hour into Malkovich’s mind, seeing, hearing, feeling whatever Malkovich experiences; an invasion of which Malkovich himself remains, at least initially, completely unaware.
So, when the individual inside Malkovich’s head is a married man, and Malkovich has intercourse with a woman, the man in Malkovich’s head also, in a sense, has intercourse with the woman, and thus in a sense commits adultery. And when the individual inside his head is a woman, the woman inside his head also in a sense has intercourse with the other woman, an act that is not precisely lesbianism nor precisely transsexualism, but a queer evocation of both under heterosexual appearances. (Both transsexualism and lesbianism figure explicitly in the consequences of this act: The woman inside Malkovich [Cameron Diaz] is so transformed by the experience that at first she wants to become a man. Later, however, after Diaz gets Keener pregnant using Malkovich’s body, the two women end up together, in their own proper bodies and genders and by implication in an "ordinary" lesbian relationship, raising "their" child together.)
And when Keener is with Malkovich and doesn’t know about the individual inside Malkovich’s head (or, more complicated still, when she does know there’s someone there, but thinks it’s someone other than who it really is), this seems to constitute a form of violation, almost a kind of rape; or at least of impersonation, which is presumably a form of rape. Also in at least one of these bizarre incidents (the first), Keener does know that Diaz is in there, but Diaz doesn’t know that Keener knows, and furthermore Diaz hadn’t anticipated that Malkovich would be having sex with anyone when she climbed into his head, and thus finds herself having sex unexpectedly; though not, as it happens, against her will. So this also seems a kind of violation of Diaz by Keener, even if one to which she doesn’t object.
Of course, Diaz is herself, in a way, violating Malkovich himself, simply by entering into him without his knowledge or consent. This is especially evident from the way Diaz, intrigued by the whole concept of the portal, has mused at length on the significance of a man’s mind having a passage or tract into itself, like a woman’s body. "He has a vagina," she murmurs happily. "I like that." The prospect of unilaterally electing to enter Malkovich’s vagina apparently not troubling her, she does so, and, after her first encounter with Keenan, becomes equally fascinated with the fact that she herself for that short time also possessed male anatomy — a fact that leads her to speak, more than once and using a cruder term, of "her" penis. A woman with a penis entering the vagina of a man… (The portal scene also has obvious birth-tract overtones, a fact the film doesn’t neglect to exploit.)
Five paragraphs so far about this film, all simply to try to convey what happens when the characters have sex. Is there nothing in the film but sex and gender politics? Well, yes, there’s also some stuff about fame, success, identity, manipulation, immortality, voyeurism, commercialism, the subconscious, the celebrity-fan relationship, and just how far you have to be willing to cut overhead to get affordable office space in Manhattan.
But sex is a major major theme in the film nonetheless. Be warned: The following paragraphs contain major spoilers. If you don’t want to know, skip to the end of the review.
Being John Malkovich: A sexual synopsis
The film’s main character is not Malkovich
but a puppeteer named Craig (John Cusack, in a performance of
remarkable range) who does street-corner theater, as we see in an
early scene with two marionettes dressed as a monk and a nun,
separated by a convent wall but each engaged in erotic pantomime
gyrations. (An outraged father, noticing what his young daughter
is looking at, punches Craig in the nose, an act I could not
quite endorse but well understood.) Later, when Craig at last
gives in to the requests of his harried wife Lotte (Diaz, cast
against type as a dowdy housewife) to get a real job, and reports
After getting the job, Craig attempts small talk with a sexy coworker named Maxine (Keener), who takes every word out of his mouth as a sexual come-on that she curtly rebuffs. This rejection pulls Craig’s strings, and he very quickly does want her, but is unable to engage her on any level (especially when she learns that he "plays with dolls"), until he stumbles upon the portal into Malkovich’s head. Craig is agog over the philosophical implications, but Maxine quickly sees a business opportunity, and soon people are lining up to pay $200 for their fifteen minutes of Malkovich (Andy Warhol never saw this coming).
But when Craig’s wife Lotte insists on her own visit to Malkovich’s head, Maxine goes and finds the actor himself, first flirting with him and then seducing him, throwing Lotte into sexual confusion. Soon both Craig and Lotte are coming on to Maxine, but she has no interest in Craig and is interested in Lotte only as Malkovich. Stung with jealousy, Craig first physically forces his wife to arrange a Malkovich rendezvous with Maxine, then locks her up and goes to keep the date himself. Later, he seems overcome with remorse over the enormity of what he has done and how he has betrayed their marriage. But no, it’s all another trick to get Maxine again: there is no remorse, no guilt, ever, by anyone in this story of unremitting nastiness, cruelty, selfishness, rudeness, and antisocial behavior.
Then the story takes another unexpected turn: When Lotte alerts Maxine that it was Craig, not she, in Malkovich, Maxine is not repelled but intrigued — the last time she was with Malkovich, the person inside showed signs of being able to control Malkovich’s behavior, something hitherto unprecedented. Impressed as one master manipulator by the work of another, Maxine decides that there may be something to this playing with dolls business after all, and dumps Lotte for Craig, who learns that he is capable of suppressing Malkovich entirely and taking over his body indefinitely. Soon the world watches as the somewhat obscure but respected actor John H. Malkovich marries Maxine (a relationship simultaneously simulating both lawful conjugal relations and adultery) and embarks upon a daring new career of puppetry.
All this, and the film has still more major surprises up its sleeve. Dr. Lester, that senile, sensuous old boss (Orson Bean), turns out to have a dark secret and a nefarious plan relating to the portal: he wants Malkovich’s body as a kind of retirement plan, and in fact his current body was acquired the same way. But now his plans have been thrown into jeopardy by Craig’s full-time possession of Malkovich, so Lester threatens to kill Maxine if Craig doesn’t abandon Malkovich’s body. (This is a bluff, however, for Maxine is pregnant with Malkovich’s child, who is apparently to be the next receptacle of the portal and thus Lester’s next retirement destination. [By this logic, it would seem that Lester’s current body ought to be that of Malkovich’s father, but the film doesn’t explore this.])
Despite Craig’s sacrifice on her behalf, Maxine has no further interest in him. The story averts one supremely bizarre ending (Maxine staying with her ostensible husband Malkovich, now inhabited by Dr. Lester) in favor of another: In the end, Maxine returns to Lotte, who is, she claims, the "father" of her child; not only Lester but a whole crew of senior citizens are all jointly "reborn" as Malkovich (here’s where the birth-tract thing comes in); Lotte and Maxine are raising their child together; and — in a deeply unnerving postscript — Craig pathetically haunts the mind of the child (who is, you remember, wired to the portal), simply to be near the two women he loved.
Is this film without merit? Certainly not.
Those three and a half stars above aren’t for show. There is the
astonishing invention of Floor
Malkovich’s brushes with the public are also very funny. In one scene a taxi driver recognizes him as "that actor guy," but can only come up with the name "Mapplethorpe;" and then tells him he was "all right in that one thing," the one where he played a jewel thief. Malkovich denies ever playing a jewel thief; but, after thinking the matter over, the cabbie says confidently, "No, I’m pretty sure it was you." In another scene, a man approaches him and offers heartfelt thanks for Malkovich’s meaningful performance as a "retard," presumably a reference to the actor’s performance as Lenny in Of Mice and Men. This is the closest anyone in the film gets to indentifying any of Malkovich’s actual work; people talk about how respected he is, but no one knows what he’s been in.
There are also two nightmarish sequences in which characters descend into Malkovich’s subconscious. The first time it is Malkovich himself, who descends into his own portal and comes face-to-face with a side of himself that no one should ever have to confront this side of Judgment Day: he learns that he sees everyone in the world in his own image, and the only word he ever hears or sees is his own last name. Later, Lotte and Maxine fight their way through a very different region of Malkovich’s subconscious, in which an insecure little boy sits in a dark cellar muttering over and over "I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad" and every horrid memory of childhood has taken root and metastasized into grotesquerie.
This is a visionary and highly imaginative film. But in turning its sensibilities toward sex, visionary becomes revisionary, and subversion becomes perversion. The malleable, plastic vision of human nature in general and of sexuality in particular, in which gender and relationships shift and merge and re-form like blobs of goo in a lava lamp, represents a profoundly anti-human fantasy and an affront to personal dignity. This film runs roughshod over the first and fundamental truth about human sexuality: "Male and female He created them… Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh."