naked lunch | david cronenberg | peter weller | judy davis | ian holm | drama | canada | united kingdom | japan | arthouse | julian sands | roy scheider | monique mercure | nicholas campbell | michael zelniker | insect | insects | based on | novel | william s. burroughs
Film: Naked Lunch
Director: David Cronenberg
Writer: David Cronenberg
Starring: Peter Weller, Judy Davis and Ian Holm
This was another film that I checked out as part of the best horror films of the 1990’s. Now I wouldn’t necessarily say this is horror, but it is definitely horrific. I was really intrigued about this one as a co-worker told me how good it was and I’m a big fan of the writer/director David Cronenberg. The synopsis is after developing an addiction to the substance he uses to kill bugs, an exterminator accidently kills his wife and becomes involved in a secret government plot being orchestrated by giant bugs in a port town in North Africa.
We follow Bill Lee (Peter Weller). He is doing his job at someone’s house, trying to exterminate their bug problem. He runs out of the powder he uses to do his job though. We then see him get scolded by the man he works for as well as the Asian man that rations it out.
He goes to a local coffee shop where he meets his two friends, Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker). They are having a debate about writing versus rewriting. It is also revealed that Bill used to be a writer, but gave it up. His friends want him to get back into it, as there’s money in it, but he finds it dangerous and this definitely comes back into play later.
When Bill goes home, it turns out that the reason he’s run out of bug powder, because his wife is using it to shoot up to get high. She is Joan Lee (Judy Davis). Bill doesn’t have room to talk as he is using what I assume to be heroin. She wants him to try the bug powder with her, but he tells her that he needs it for work.
Bill is picked up the following day by two police officers. They think that he has a large amount of drugs and don’t believe him he uses it for work. They want him to prove it by bringing out a giant insect and prove the powder kills it. When they leave him alone, the giant bug talks to him revealing that he is a secret agent and that his wife is one as well for a rival corporation. He ends up killing it and heading home.
It is there that things take an even crazier turn. He walks in on his wife having sex with Martin. Bill goes in his room and shoots up. Joan then comes in and he gives her a dose. Bill asks her to do their trick, but it ends up with him shooting her in the head. He flees and hides out in a seedy diner. It is there that he meets another giant bug that tells him he has to go to North Africa. That’s what he does, but he sinks into madness, drug use and a world of hallucinations.
Now this film was really one that I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. I definitely started to take notes, something I don’t necessarily do. There were some much weird things going on though that I wanted to make sure I covered everything that really struck me about this film. The first thing is that as an aspiring writer, I really liked the ideas that are presented about that. One of the first conversations we get is about writing and rewriting. The nerdier friend says that he does this because he’s a perfectionist and really wants to get the ideas right. On the other side, the more jock friend says that you need to get the raw ideas down on paper and to not change them. I definitely found this to be an interesting idea.
Going from there though, especially in North Africa, we really learn about the writers and their quirkiness. This film is also about addiction, something very prevalent among writers. There are some pretty wild hallucinations that the typewriters they are using are alive and they need to have the right one in order to produce the correct works. Going even farther, it is like a drug to them as an addiction. I thought there was good symbolism that Hank and Martin look in the bag that Bill says is the remains of his typewriter, but its alcohol bottles and drug paraphernalia, tools to get him into the mindset to write.
From this drug aspect of the film, we don’t really know what is real and what isn’t. Clearly all of the monsters and typewriters changing are them using drugs. Bill actually blacks out a lot and that is from the drug use as well. The interesting thing is that he is producing amazing things and can’t do that unless he is using.
There is also the aspect of sexuality in this film. Bill is accused of being a homosexual. He does end up running around with gay man for a bit and there is a scene where it does look like they made love. Bill also accuses Fadela (Monique Mercure) of being a lesbian and that Joan is falling in with her. I think there is the fear of being different and keeping it a secret, especially since this film takes place in 1954. It was against the law actually and these writers all have a bit of pretention to them.
To move away from the story and elements of it to the pacing of the film, this is actually really good in my opinion for a movie running almost 2 hours. I never found myself bored and really just wanted to see where things lead to next. A lot of this for me comes down to the fact that you are constantly trying to piece together what is going on, because it is so surreal. I would even go as far to say that it feels like a fever dream. From things I’ve seen, this is very similar to how the novel reads that this is based on and this actually really intrigues me. It isn’t the most coherent narrative, but it is more about the acting and the visuals.
This actually brings me to the acting, which is absolutely brilliant. Weller I know from the Robocop films. He portrays this role in such a way that I drawn into his performance as he keeps going mad. It makes it interesting that he isn’t entirely sure of what is going on and neither are we, which works. Davis was solid in her performance as both Joans. Holm I really liked as the somewhat villainous Tom Frost. There were solid cameos of Julian Sands and Roy Scheider. The rest of the cast rounded out the film for what was needed as well in my opinion.
You have to know that if there are effects in a film that Cronenberg is making, they are probably going to be practical and look good. That is definitely the case here. The insects and all of the creatures look so real that it is unnerving actually. You could tell some things weren’t real, but that doesn’t matter. Knowing that we are following a character that is drugged up, this makes sense because we are getting their sense of reality. I was blown away by the effects here and the film is shot brilliantly as well.
Now with that said, this film is completely amazing. There is so much here that can be taken up for interpretation that I think another viewing or two is going to be required to fully put together what I’ve seen. After this initial viewing, the pretentious part of me that loves arthouse films like this is onboard. The narrative isn’t linear or even coherent, but there is an arch it is following. I think the performances bring to life the world that this is creating. The effects help there and despite the just shy of two hour running time, I wasn’t bored in trying to figure out what was going on. The soundtrack of the film didn’t really stand out; it does fit the scenes for what was needed. This isn’t for everyone, but I definitely found this to be a really good film.
My Rating: 9 out of 10