Through an aesthetics of uncertainty, Being John Malkovich positions itself firmly within the borderlands of reality and fantasy, the exciting and the banal, self-possession and meekness.
The film’s narrative centers on four characters: Craig, a depressed puppeteer in a hapless marriage, his animal-loving wife Lotte, the entrepreneurial Maxine, and, finally, John Malkovich himself. These personalities collide when Craig discovers a wormhole that leads directly into the actor John Malkovich’s mind — allowing anyone (and everyone) to inhabit his body for a short period. Craig and Lotte react to this situation with a certain amount of fascination, but Maxine seems to have no interest in trading places with another human being. Instead, she sees a business opportunity and begins to “rent” John Malkovich out for $200 a session.
In the first scenes of the film, Maxine appears in a white dress, reminiscent of Sharon Stone’s iconic look in Basic Instinct. The outfit gestures toward her ruthless nature. Maxine is a materialist, not a dreamer. She represents a quietly Machiavellian, yet strangely elevated ethos. Unfettered by bourgeois notions of gender, sexual orientation, or morality, Maxine is driven by two things and two things only: sex and profit. For this reason, she becomes an object of obsession both for Craig and for his wife Lotte. They lust after her aura of self-possession — her seeming ability to get exactly what she wants when she wants it.
In contrast to Maxine, Lotte casts a withering silhouette. Her padded-shoulder jackets and larger-than-life hair belie a meek personality. She is power-suited without power. It is only through inhabiting John Malkovich that she experiences authority and (more precisely) maleness. Through Malkovich, she sees the potential for breaking free, not only from her old self but also from Craig. Through Malkovich, she discovers a new world. More precisely, she discovers herself through remove. She discovers that she (perhaps) should have been a man.
Craig, on the other hand, only sees an opportunity for fame and power. He would prefer to inhabit Malkovich permanently rather than continue to live as himself. It is this selfish impulse that inevitably leads to his downfall. Unlike the female characters of this film, Craig does not grow. He cannot see himself as anything other than weak and at the mercy of others. Ironically, this low self-conception leads him to destruction. The mistaken belief that happiness must be claimed (rather than discovered) is Craig’s tragedy.
The beauty of Being John Malkovich is in its strange familiarity, presenting a world that is odd in its details but not so far from our own. Much like reality, uncertainty is the fabric of Being John Malkovich. And it is against this backdrop of sur-reality that the film asks some pertinent questions. What is self? What does it mean to be a walking, talking human being with this thing we call free will? Does free will exist? Or is it just a nice story we tell ourselves while we’re going about the motions?