Have you ever thought what defines you as being … you? Is it actually you who makes the decisions? Or is it you who controls your actions? Even if you never asked yourself these questions then this movie might cast doubt on your conception of selfhood. Why? Because the question of what ‘self’ is combines with themes such as the relationship between artist – creation, manipulation and morals, all this against the background of a love triangle.
Craig Schwartz is an ordinary man, living with his ordinary wife in their ordinary house – or at least so it seems. Craig is a puppeteer, a puppeteer in a world that is oblivious to his art. While looking for a job, he finds an advertisement for a job at 7 ½ floor. And this thing is just the first in a row of odd events.
John Cusack’s impersonation of the puppeteer does manage to highlight the complexity of the character that lies in the character’s somewhat pathological art – puppeteering. As the title of the film puts it, ‘being’ is the central idea around which everything else revolves. Craig is a puppeteer because he wants to experience ‘…the idea of being someone else, of getting inside their skin, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel’. Malkovich has the job of ‘entering’ other people’s lives so that his acting would be genuine. The movie opens with the dancing scene of a wood puppet – the dance of disillusion and despair. As it will become apparent, the motif of dancing illustrates the difference between Craig’s art and acting – puppeteering implies manipulating. Craig’s performance of the dance, but this time in the body of Malkovich, highlights Craig’s ultimate desire of achieving near perfection in his art. Without being limited by his condition and without self-consciousness he reaches gratefulness in his performance. Each character that enters Malkovich’s mind acts according to their aspirations, and the body of Malkovich is just a way of keeping in touch with reality. It is ironic how an actor ends up being ’acted’. He would have never thought that a portal could ever enable other people to “enter” his mind. And who would? This wacky form of identifying with someone else opens up new possibilities for each of the characters, namely fulfilling their desires. It becomes obvious that people are defined by their desires – take a look at what happens when John Malkovich enters his own mind.
Even this conclusion opens up other curiosities – if the self is defined by experiencing perceptions, thoughts and emotions then the self is a consequence of consciousness but in turn if there is no ‘self’ to experience then will there be consciousness? As we see here, Craig’s self and Malkovich’s consciousness combine – Craig perceives and experiences the world through Malkovich. So he has his own self but without his own consciousness? And what happens to the self of Malkovich – if he still has his consciousness then how will his subconscious react? In the case of Craig’s wife, Lotte, this change in awareness leads to a revelation in her ‘self’.
The possibility of invading someone’s mind will not only bring money and fame but it will bring up the greed for love, it will push them to make sacrifices and ultimately it will illustrate the destructive power of ambition for one’s goals. But this opportunity does not last for ever, especially when other people’s life depend on John Malkovich’s mind – and they are willing to fight for it.
The recurrence of the idea of being inside someone else and its implications is what gives the film profoundness. It is even hard to believe that Kauffman’s original idea for the movie was "a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife." Yet, a touch of witty absurdity and a chaotic storyline completely turned the faith of this edgy movie. It is a roller coaster of concepts that revolve around one basic traditional idea – desires drive us.
Corina Motofeanu writes about cinema for The Manchester Magazine. She is a first-year Life Sciences student at the University of Manchester