Being John Malkovich – Review

So it’s been a couple of weeks since my last blog post – I’ve taken some time off from slaying the patriarchy to go travelling a bit. I’ve been up to Edinburgh for the Fringe and at a music festival in Dorset but now I’m back with another review (next post will be a feature I’m working on all about the role of female pleasure on screen). This time round, it’s the masterpiece Being John Malkovich which I will be ripping to shreds, no matter how great it is.

I watched this film about a week ago now, with some friends whilst more than a little inebriated. I loved the plot and its twists and turns, its bizarre characters and settings, but through my intoxicated state, I managed to also get incredibly angry with the film’s representation of women. Whilst I do think this film does actually manage to pass the Bechdel Test (although Lotte’s gender is called into question throughout the movie), I had such an issue with the character of Maxine that I thought I’d have to write a post.

Catherine Keener was actually nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Maxine, the femme fatale who Craig meets at work and instantly falls in love and/or lust with. For a script which tackles everything from puppetry to the identity crisis of an animal-obsessed transgendered artist, the character of Maxine seems very much to draw the shorter proverbial straw when it comes to imaginative character traits.

We first see Maxine sitting in a room in the offices of floor 7 and a half, taunting Craig with her disinterested side eyes and viscous rebuttals in response to his attempts to strike up a conversation. Craig becomes infatuated pretty quickly, following her down the corridor and repeatedly asking her out for drinks after she has made it clear that she is not interested.

The combination of sexual confidence with a distinct lack of interest is something seen in the femme fatale character trope of course, but it has no place in this otherwise ingenious and innovative script. It frustrated me to the point where I thought there might actually be an element of ridicule in the creation of the character, but unfortunately, I think it may just be a case of two-dimensional female characterisation which is seen in so much of today’s media.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love Charlie Kaufman as much as the next guy, possibly more so (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains one of my favourite films of all time). But creating a female character who is both sexy and unattainable? Groundbreaking (that last bit is sarcastic, just on the off chance it didn’t translate).

Craig’s persistence and obliviousness to her complete disinterest also poses a problem, something which I have seen addressed before in an article I read on the Salon website called The Guys Who Won’t Hear No (link to be found on the resources page). The article addresses the issue of male characters in films who can’t, or won’t understand that a female character is plainly not interested. Often posed as part of their romantic character arc in the “guy wins back girl” section of the plot, this archetype sends the message to boys that “no” in fact means “maybe”(see below for my personal favourite).

In this particular instance, “no” means locking your recently estranged wife in a cage whilst pursuing your still-disinterested colleague from the inside of John Malkovich, but that’s another plot point for another time.

Quite a short one this time round – as I said I’ve been away and busy job hunting otherwise, but please stay tuned for more feminist film reviews and features to come very very soon!

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