Release Date: December 27, 1991 (screened June 20, 2014 – 16th Annual Provincetown Film Festival) Runtime: 115 minutes Rating: R Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Director: David Cronenberg Cast: Peter Weller; Judy Davis; Ian Holm; Julian Sands; Monique Mercure; Roy Scheider
OK, full disclosure: this is one weird fuckin’ movie. David Cronenberg has never been the most mainstream of directors, but this one is truly odd. Talking cockroaches that masquerade as typewriters; horny centipedes; Judy Davis shooting up roach killer…it’s all here. Welcome to “Naked Lunch.”
Based on William S. Burroughs’s novel of the same name, “Naked Lunch” follows William Lee (Peter Weller), a former criminal-turned-exterminator (or is he really a secret agent…I have no idea) as he tries to find out the mysteries of his life. Also, there’s his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), who may or may not be who she appears to be either; Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), a kind-of mad scientist; Fadela (Monique Mercure), the lesbian housekeeper; and a host of other folks. After becoming addicted to roach killer (think heroin) and accidentally killing his wife, Lee finds himself on the run from the law and travels to the Interzone, a North African city-state where one can easily disappear. While in Interzone, he befriends a couple (Ian Holm and Judy Davis), the woman half of which may just be another version of his dead wife. Still trying to determine if he is a secret agent with an agenda, or if he is just hallucinating most of the time, Lee communicates with typewriters-turned talking cockroaches, which seem to be giving him nefarious directions about his supposed mission.
Truth be told, this is not my kind of movie. It’s out there, no doubt about it. I like Cronenberg mainly because I admire his odd bent, and some of his movies are excellent (“Videodrome,” “The Fly”). But most of the time, his visions are simply too strange for me. “Naked Lunch” was often thought to be unfilmable, since the book as written is not a traditional narrative and Cronenberg had to try and streamline the story for movie audiences. After watching the film (and having not read the book), I can draw the conclusion that, perhaps, it is an allegory for drug addiction and paranoia. Maybe that’s the intent of the story, maybe not…but that’s what I gleaned from it.
Cronenberg is a skilled filmmaker and the movie looks great (the set design and art direction successfully transform a Toronto soundstage into a North African city in the 1960s). I like Peter Weller (“RoboCop”), but he is all mumbly here and sometimes difficult to understand. I suppose this is appropriate for the character, but that doesn’t make understanding his dialogue any easier. Judy Davis’s performance, on the other hand, borders on the camp. Somehow, though, this fits within the peculiar context of the movie. Same goes for Roy Scheider, particularly towards the end.
I am not really sure how much more I can say about the movie since I didn’t “enjoy” it, per se, but admired it for being so staunchly off-kilter. If you are a fan of David Cronenberg, then I would absolutely recommend checking this out as a general assessment of his body of work. Others need not apply.