Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze, is a film about the near impossibility of escaping ourselves, even—no, especially—when we’re creating something. Putting on a puppet show, starring on Broadway, writing about a film: these are not gifts we altruistically give the world, but narcissistic projections that serve the wounded children [or, as the case may be, the 30-something puppeteers] living inside our psyches.
This rather pessimistic take on the artist is emblematized by the film’s most famous scene, in which the titular actor crawls into the damp, muddy portal that opens into his own mind. Like when you point a camera toward a monitor it’s hooked up to and see an abyss of blank images, so Malkovich looks into his mind and sees an abyss of Malkoviches. The upper-crust restaurant that is the successful actor’s psyche is full of men, women, children, and babies who, thanks to late-90s CGI, all have Malkovich’s face. It’s Malkoviches all the way down, an endless Malkovich abyss.
Friedrich Nietzsche was the one who referred to the hidden recesses of the self as an abyss, but he actually meant it in a relatively optimistic light; Kaufman’s abyss is rather more like the unconscious according to Sigmund Freud, who [narcissistically] never admitted he had read Nietzsche. When you stare into Freud’s abyss, what stares back at you is not the pure potential for creation and becoming, but petty narcissistic desire, childhood trauma—Lotte [Cameron Diaz] and Maxine [Catherine Keener] stumble across the “primal scene” as they run through Malkovich’s mind—and all the impulses that, if acted upon in the real world, would land you in an insane asylum.
Art, Narcissism, Freud, Recursivity, puppets; people who have seen a few other Charlie Kaufman movies will probably recognize why I haven’t attributed much to director Spike Jonze. Movies like Adaptation. [2002, also directed by Jonze], Synecdoche, New York, and Anomalisa [2007 and 2015, both directed by Kaufman himself] also touch on these topics. Kaufman’s central characters—always men, always thinly veiled versions of himself—are always trying to escape a self that is the only reality they know or can know.
Any alternate world Kaufman’s artist characters create for themselves is always doomed to be a reflection of the unsatisfying one they started in. Craig [John Cusack] is a street puppeteer clearly unsatisfied with his life, but his art is only a recapitulation of his misery. In his marionette show, a puppet that looks exactly like him trashes its own apartment. When finally he takes over John Malkovich’s body, he turns the famous actor into a puppeteer and a miserable husband. Craig’s repeated attempts to escape his life only reveal the impossibility of eschewing our psyches through creation; it’s Craigs all the way down.
What’s unique about Being John Malkovich, in comparison to a film like Synecdoche, New York, is that some characters do seem able to escape the strictures of their dissatisfying lives. Specifically, the women in the film are the only characters with a happy ending. The neurotic animal lover Lotte ostensibly discovers her transgender identity, or at the very least [the movie is somewhat unclear on this point], her desire for women, through the portal into Malkovich’s mind. She falls in love with Maxine, the arbitrary object of Craig’s listless affection, who for her part can only love Lotte if she’s inside of Malkovich’s body.
The women in the film eventually find something like happiness together by escaping themselves, but even their happiness is grounded on the exploitation and violation of Malkovich, who is essentially the film’s only (partial) innocent. Even love and sex in the film are contingent on the projection of narcissistic desires, selfish demands on the other, and objectification—in this case the literal use of a human being as a mediator of desire.
At least, though, Maxine and Lotte are able to escape this cycle of using and being used, even if they needed it to realize their desires. On the other hand, Craig, like a true traumatized Freudian subject, has regressed to childhood, now inhabits the body of his/Malkovich’s daughter with Maxine. Craig remains stuck in his abyss, gazing out at the world through the helpless eyes of a child. There’s something very self-indulgent about Being John Malkovich, a story by an artist about the narcissism of artists, but over the last two decades Kaufman has turned his self-indulgence into some of the funniest, most absurd, and most acutely observed comedies in American filmmaking.