There is a moment in which John Malkovich dives into the portal that leads inside his own head and comes up in a fancy restaurant in which his date, the chanteuse singing with one leg off the piano and everyone in the entire restaurant is John Malkovich. In this world there is not only one man, John Malkovich, but also only one word, written or spoken, that appears everywhere. Malkovich. Inside John Malkovich’s head as inside all of us, is an entire world. When John Malkovich enters his head, he enters his own inner world and when Maxine and Lotte enter his mind together, they find themselves inside his subconscious, the journey they make together through the shameful incidents of his past through his childhood and into adulthood, transform their own relationship.
Wait, you might ask? A portal in his head? If you are asking that question it is probably because you have never seen Being John Malkovich. Being John Malkovich is a unique collaboration between director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman and it’s a journey into the strange world of human identity.
Being John Malkovich begins with Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) waking up to the sound of his wife’s voice urging him to wake up. Except instead of the voice of his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) it is the voice of his wife’s pet cockatoo imitating her. This is the first of a long series of puppets, human, animal and inhuman that parade through Being John Malkovich.
Craig Schwartz himself is a puppeteer. He manipulates artificial figures which appear to speak while projecting his voice and his desires. He is an unsuccessful puppeteer because his ambitions are literally rather than kid friendly. An outdoor puppet show product of Abelard and Heloise, two ecclesiastical figures of French romance who themselves communicated through letters, leads to a beating from an angry father seeing his daughter watching a rather explicit moment in the production. Later after being rejected by Maxine, Craig Schwartz employs two Maxine and Craig puppets to act out the scene as it should have been and through his puppets, Craig Schwartz explains the appeal of puppeteering to her and to himself.
As a puppeteer, Craig Schwartz can only properly express himself via his puppets. When he hides behind the curtain and the puppets speak, then Craig Schwartz can accomplish great things. When he is out front, he remains a despised and contemptible figure. Craig Schwartz’s life becomes a success when he takes possession of John Malkovich’s body and transforms Malkovich’s career from that of an actor to a puppeteer. At that point Craig Schwartz becomes the puppeteer controlling a body and controlling the puppets that surround him. Only when subsuming his identity within that of John Malkovich, can Craig Schwartz achieve success.
Meanwhile at the beginning, Craig Schwartz has given up on puppeteering and obtained work at the Mertin Flemmer building on the seventh and a half floor. The seventh and a half floor is only half of a floor, a semi-establishment positioned between the seventh and eight floors, which according to an introductory video was created by the building’s original owner, Captain Flemmer in order to house midget people. The firm’s owner, Doctor Lester has a secretary or executive assistant who mangles words causing Doctor Lester to believe that he has a speech impediment, when in fact it is she who has the speech impediment. Doctor Lester thus becomes isolated via a perceptual barrier from communication.
Craig Schwartz’s job is filing papers, another form of puppeteering, manipulating paperwork and in doing so manipulating the people behind them. And then Craig Schwartz reaches behind a file cabinet for some files that fell behind it and discovers a dark tunnel, a dark tunnel that leads inside the head of John Malkovich. For fifteen minutes, anyone inside the tunnel can see through the eyes of John Malkovich and feel what he feels, before being spit out by the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Maxine, who showed no prior interest in Craig Schwartz, uses it to set up a business together with Craig, J.M. Enterprise, offering customers a chance to become someone else. The lonely and disenfranchised, the people who want to be anyone but who they are, eagerly leap at the opportunity and lines form for a chance to spend fifteen minutes in John Malkovich’s head.
When Craig Schwartz’s wife Lotte, tries it out, she enters John Malkovich while he is toweling himself off and getting out of the shower and finds herself awakened by the experience of being inside a man’s body from the inside and decides that what she really wants is sex reassignment surgery to become a man. Up till now Lotte has been a disheveled rumpled figure with a house full of animals, including Elijah, a chimp with a childhood trauma. She presses Craig Schwartz to have a baby with her, perhaps in order to put her feminine nurturing instincts to use, but Craig rejects her. Through the masculine John Malkovich body, Lotte experiences a kind of reverse sexuality in which John Malkovich becomes the female part and Lotte functions as the male part. Rejected as a woman, Lotte instead experiences sex with Maxine through John Malkovich’s body but while Maxine professes her love for Lotte, she rejects her in person, only accepting her in John Malkovich’s body.
When Craig Schwartz learns of their affair, he takes Lotte’s place, while caging her with her chimp and becomes John Malkovich’s puppeteer. Maxine who has been impregnated by Lotte through John Malkovich finds herself abducted by Dr. Lester who is in actuality Captain Flemmer, who along with a group of compatriots moves between bodies, parasitically seizing control of those hosts at their forty fourth birthday. That is ultimately to be John Malkovich’s destiny. It is also the destiny of Emily, the daughter of Lotte and Maxine, in whose subconscious Craig Schwartz is a prisoner as the puppeteer has become the puppet, unable to look away from the sight of Maxine and Lotte’s love for each other.