Psychoanalysis, Film Theory, and the Case of Being John Malkovich

By Dragunoiu, Dana | Film Criticism, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Psychoanalysis, Film Theory, and the Case of Being John Malkovich


Dragunoiu, Dana, Film Criticism


Being John Malkovich opens on a stage where a puppet's gaze into a mirror leads it to perform what its maker, Craig Schwartz, calls "Craig's Dance of Despair and Disillusionment." Raging against its mirror image, the puppet discovers its dependence on the man who pulls its strings, a puppeteer whom it strikingly resembles in name and physical appearance. The puppet's performance is greeted by enthusiastic applause, but we soon discover that the theatre sits in the puppeteer's home studio and that the applause is simulated by a soundtrack.

The puppet's distress at the sight of its mirror image suggests a state of self-alienation, a psychic division that is reinforced by the puppet's physical resemblance to its maker. This psychic split recalls Jacques Lacan's formulation of the human subject as divided between a narcissistic total being (me) and a speaking subject (I), which fuels its attempt to validate its (fictional) unity of being by convincing the outside world to pronounce it authentic. Although the applause that follows the puppet's dance seems to confer the external validation needed by both puppet and maker, the fact that the applause is a recording identifies the futility of the puppeteer's attempt to cope with his own self-alienation by inventing the adulation of an audience. The absence of real spectators alerts us to the psychic conflict that sets the plot in motion--the puppeteer's desire to be someone else, someone who enjoys the personal and professional recognition Craig does not have.

As Xan Brooks has aptly observed, Spike Jonze's 1999 surrealistic comedy is a flamboyant extrapolation of this opening scene. The relentless search for outside validation at the heart of Lacan's conception of subjectivity fuels the film's provocative exploration of freedom and manipulation, gender and subjectivity, consumerism and the cult of celebrity. The film's investment in these discourses makes it deserving of a more rigorous examination than its current status as a clever and entertaining pastiche might suggest. If the opening scene's invocation of psychoanalytic subject formation seems initially restrictive in relation to other relevant accounts of subjectivity (postmodern social construction, Warholian cult of celebrity), I would argue that this clash of conceptions and discourses is central to the film's texture. Chris Chang's observation that Being John Malkovich is "paradoxically cerebral and patently ridiculous"(6) signals the possibility that the film's combination of madcap comedy and serious cultural critique is in fact a strategy for producing meaning.

Film theorists have rightly argued for a cultural affinity between film and psychoanalysis, and reading film through the lens of Freudian and Lacanian theory has become a critical orthodoxy in film studies. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze seem intent on parodying this hegemony, and Being John Malkovich's most explicit deployment of psychoanalysis is so reductive as to suggest a deliberate caricature of a sanctified tradition. This, however, does not tell the whole story, for Being John Malkovich's romp through the "greatest hits" of psychoanalysis and what Christine Gledhill has called "cine-psychoanalysis" is not merely parodic. The film's sophisticated deployment of these two fields of study can be framed by invoking the familiar folk tale of Br'er Rabbit, who escapes from the clutches of the fox by begging the fox not to throw him into the briar patch. The fox throws him into the patch and discovers, to his dismay, that he has sent the Br'er Rabbit home.

Like Br'er Rabbit, Being John Malkovich only seems to reject the psychoanalytic terms on which it depends. Its strategic blending of the serious with the comic is most explicitly announced in two scenes that parody the most familiar concepts of Freudian psychology. The first of these scenes depicts a chimp who, having been diagnosed by his psychotherapist as suffering from feelings of inadequacy and repressed childhood trauma, is confronted and cured by an event that reminds him of the original traumatic experience. …

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