Monday 9 March 2020

1,001 Films: "Naked Lunch" (1991)

David Cronenberg's adaptation of William Burroughs' famously "unfilmable" novel Naked Lunch is far from unwatchable, although it has a difficult task trying to parse out the writer's drug-addled paranoid fantasy into a continent-hopping secret-agent flick, an examination of polymorphously perverse sexual mores, and another of Cronenberg's attempts to present his audience with the fragile, questionable subjective reality of his lead character. This much we can be sure of: the movie starts in the New York of the late 1950s, where Peter Weller's Bill Lee is a junkie-turned-exterminator who, like his faithless wife Joan (Judy Davis), has become hooked on the powder used to smoke out cockroaches. Lee is confronted by a giant bug that talks out of its rectum and insists that Joan is a corporate spy who must herself be eradicated; with this achieved, our compromised hero flees to "the Interzone" - a Casablanca-like limbo on the African coast (or possibly just inside Lee's own head) - where he retreats into dependency once more and falls into a curiously chaste parody of the gay/swinger lifestyle with an ageing queen (Ian Holm) and his brash American wife (Davis again).

Naked Lunch finds Cronenberg trying to make cinematic what seems from this distance one of those self-reflexive modernist novels that, stripped of its bad-trip extremes, is about nothing more dramatic than writing itself. (The film would make a fine freelancers' double-bill with the same year's Barton Fink.) Typewriters proliferate, sometimes as items to be bartered, other times as portals to the erotic; an early conversation in a diner finds two writers debating whether religious beliefs should come into play when rewriting a text; and Cronenberg throws in a minor coup de cinéma illustrating the difference between text and subtext by having Holm say one thing even as his lips say another. An hour in, by which time you'll have long decided whether or not to stick with it through to the end, the film turns into a document about the writing of a book called, you guessed it... "Naked Lunch". Somewhere in its pages, and in the film's frames, is a free-associative play on words, making the link between bugs (as in creepy-crawlies) and bugs (as in devices of surveillance), not that it really gets Cronenberg's version anywhere on screen. It's a funnier film than many have given it credit for, with some funny ha-ha to offset its considerable funny-strange, although even that ha-ha is pretty strange, like the bout of extracurricular sex between a junkie who, because of the drugs, can't come and a junkie who, because of the high, doesn't need to come. The stream-of-consciousness bravura carries it only so far - the film tails off into self-involved weirdness around the time Lee gets involved in a plot to expose Julian Sands - and the Ornette Coleman Trio's parping trumpets get rather too much to have to listen to; still, Weller, drawling all his lines, gives a marvellously droll performance, mishearing "sexual ambivalence" as "sexual ambulance", and reacting to everything that comes to pass with a glazed narcotic indifference, as though sodomy in a human-scaled parrot cage were the most everyday thing in the universe.

Naked Lunch is available on Blu-Ray through StudioCanal. 

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