This month, AfterEllen.com is bringing you reviews of several newer lesbian classics. We’ve all heard of Desert Hearts, but what came after?
Written by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and directed by Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich is one of the strangest, most entertaining and fascinating examinations of the nature of identity ever to appear in a mainstream American film. What’s especially of interest is the complicated and whimsical way the movie deals with sexual identity; it also features a thoroughly positive representation of two women in love.
There are all sorts of metaphysical gymnastics on the way to that particular point, but the journey is more than worth the Freudian headache it induces.
As the film begins, we meet Craig (a barely recognizable John Cusack), an unsuccessful puppeteer, and his animal-loving wife, Lotte (an equally unrecognizable Cameron Diaz). It seems that Craig hasn’t been getting any work with his artful, dramatic puppet shows, so he takes a job on floor 7½ of the Mertin Flemmer building. This is the first step into a truly odd world, where Craig finds himself among co-workers such as the sexy, manipulative Maxine (Catherine Keener) and his bizarre boss.
One day, Craig accidentally falls into a tunnel and finds himself out of his mind — literally, as an observer in the mind of actor John Malkovich. For 15 minutes, Craig experiences every sensation Malkovich does as the actor goes about his routine; then he is unceremoniously dumped by the side of the Jersey turnpike.
As Craig introduces the "Malkovich experience" to his wife and his crush, Maxine, things begin to get complicated. He and Maxine start up a business charging people to enter Malkovich’s mind. Lotte becomes smitten with Maxine and with the experience of being inside Malkovich, pulling up an entire host of questions for her budding sense of self and her sexuality.
"Complicated" doesn’t even begin to describe the labyrinthine plot, which also includes Craig’s boss (who plans on living forever by jumping from one "host" body to the next) and the bizarre happenings that occur when Malkovich himself gets wise to the goings on and enters his own portal. However, the basic themes of identity — especially sexual identity, control and manipulation — underscore every scene.
Both Craig and Lotte fall for Maxine, who loves all the attention and even begins dating Malkovich — just because she can. She also develops feelings for Lotte, but not for Craig. The love triangle that forms between Craig, Lotte and Maxine is further complicated by Maxine’s only returning Lotte’s affections when she’s inside Malkovich — a point that becomes clear in one hilarious scene in which both Craig and Lotte try to kiss Maxine after an awkward dinner together.
At first, the attraction is tenuous; Maxine is attracted to the feminine presence within Malkovich and describes herself as being "taken" with that element of Lotte. Lotte herself goes through a period wherein she believes herself to be more comfortable in Malkovich’s form, an attitude that changes throughout the course of the film.
Lotte eventually realizes that her obsession with being Malkovich is actually a genuine love for Maxine. Through it all, they manage to have something of a relationship, meeting when Lotte is in Malkovich. This drives Craig crazy with jealousy, and he begins to manipulate the situation to suit his own selfish purposes.
There is more gender-bending going on here than can adequately be described, but somehow, through the events of Lotte and Maxine’s relationship, Maxine becomes pregnant with Lotte/Malkovich’s child.
Maxine, however, is initially only interested in power. Though she returns Lotte’s affections, she ends up manipulating Craig to take over Malkovich’s body (like the puppeteer that he is) so she can rise to fame with him. Craig is no saint, either, allowing his jealousy over the Maxine/Lotte relationship to get the best of him.
Later, after a very amusing sequence detailing "Malkovich’s" newfound success as a puppeteer, we see a lovelorn Maxine pining for her true love: Lotte. Toward the end of the movie, after Lotte and Maxine express their true feelings for each other, they run off and raise a happy family together.