'The John Malkovich Paradox' ('Le paradoxe de John Malkovich'): San Sebastian Review

Le paradoxe de John Malkovich The John Malkovich Paradox Still - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Le paradoxe de John Malkovich The John Malkovich Paradox Still - H 2014

One-note documentary lovingly burnishes its subject's polymorphous mystique

The protean American star takes on a dramatic new challenge in Pierre-Francois Limbosch's documentary

Less a chorus of approval and more a barrage of backslapping, The John Malkovich Paradox (Le paradoxe de John Malkovich) is a bemusing glimpse into the polarizingly mercurial actor's predictably off-beat creative processes. Observing rehearsals for a French-language staging of Dangerous Liaisons played by neophytes, longtime Malkovich collaborator Pierre-Francois Limbosch delivers an earnestly admiring celebration, which at times exudes a whiff of sycophantic hagiography. The results, somewhat ironically, are simultaneously catnip for Malkophiles while providing plenty of ammunition for those skeptical about his talents and eclectic exploits. Including Malkovich's name in the title is a savvy move, however, likely to boost prospects among festival programmers and TV buyers.

Stephen Frears' 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, based on the Oscar-winning script by Christopher Hampton — itself derived from Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' classic French-language novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses — provided Malkovich with a major career breakthrough and a signature role in the form of Machiavellian seducer the Vicomte de Valmont. Two decades later, he collaborated with Fanette Barraya to translate Hampton's screenplay into a theater version in de Laclos' own tongue and selected actors fresh from drama school for a production at Paris' Theatre de L'Atelier. Limbosch provides brief glimpses of the two-month rehearsal period, during which it becomes clear that as a director, Malkovich (speaking reasonably fluent French throughout) favors what might be charitably termed an extremely light, hands-off touch.

Indeed, the charismatic actors — via talking-head interviews — express their surprise at the degree of latitude they were afforded. They are urged by their director to "follow your instincts" as much as possible, even if this results in different choices, line readings and stage business from performance to performance. The "paradox" referred to in the film's eye-catching title is that Malkovich is "very demanding, but he gives us freedom." Limbosch, production designer on Malkovich's sole big-screen directorial outing The Dancer Upstairs (2002), provides plenty of examples of the "freedom" part of the actor's comment but little sense of the "very demanding" aspects.

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Actual interventions are rare and brief ("plus vite!"), Malkovich, a "confidence man" if ever there was one, preferring what's literally and metaphorically a "backseat" role — what he terms "the art of keeping quiet and trusting." The extreme manifestation of this occurs when Malkovich, who for decades now has nimbly segued between Hollywood blockbusters, indie fare and experimental-tinged stage work, leaves the nine-strong cast to their own devices for over a year when the bare-bones, stripped-down show goes on the international road after 149 Paris performances.

The long run in the French capital, plus the extent of bookings elsewhere (which included Washington and New York), indicate that Malkovich's creative gamble paid off. But with the range of contributors and commentators strictly limited to the actors, Malkovich andLimbosch himself, there's no room for an objective or even critical perspective. "You have to admit, he's really really something", we're urged at one point. And it would have surely benefited the project if greater degrees of light and shade had been incorporated.

Limbosch instead includes brief ruminations on the assembly and structure of his own film, which he worked on in an edifice referred to as "a kind of Japanese cathedral" built in his back garden. But there's no sense of productively tricky creative struggles or frictions, either in terms of The John Malkovich Paradox or the development of the play at its heart. The picture's subtitle A Trip Around Dangerous Liaisons therefore proves inadvertently fitting, as what emerges is more a cozily meandering ramble rather than a documentary that yields surprising or stimulating insight into the text(s) or this particular production.

The basic problem is that Limbosch is just too close to Malkovich and his work. At one point he breaks down in tears during an especially emotional actor interview: "It's for moments like this that I wanted to make this film, moments that help you to live and grow." Elsewhere he even refers to himself as "le dixieme petit negre" of the cast — a line that is, perhaps wisely, omitted in the picture's English subtitles. Lost in translation, you might say.

Production company: Arimage
Director / Screenwriter: Pierre-Francois Limbosch
Producers: Jean-Jacques Albert, Clara Pasi
Cinematographer: Antoine Morin
Editor: Anna Brunstein
Composer: Nicolas Errera
Sales: Cinexport, Paris
No Rating, 73 minutes