NAKED (UK, 1993) *** 3/4
My high rating comes with a warning. "Naked" is terrific but not to everyone's taste. It is sleazy, unsettling, foul-mouthed and definitely not uplifting. At last year's Cannes Festival, it received two top prizes: Best Director to Mike Leigh ("High Hopes," "Life Is Sweet,") and Best Actor to David Thewlis, whose unforgettable performance outshines that of any male in the recent Oscar race. The critics and cinephiles were also very high on the film but some of the locals who saw it reacted with the Gallic equivalent of "yuk."
Thewlis plays Johnny, a drifter who comes in from the cold -- or tries to and fails, because he keeps undermining his own self. A grungy, marginal nihilist, he is also an intellectual and round-the-clock philosopher who throws around words like "solipsism" within his scatological rhetoric.
He is first shown in a dark street of his native Manchester, raping a woman (or more likely, having brutal sex), then stealing a car and driving to the London flat of ex-girlfriend Louise (Sharp) . She's out. He engages in casual, violent and demeaning sex with spaced-out house mate Sophie (Cartlidge). All this goes comes with a before, during and after stream of talk : insults, apothegms, incisive notions, the whole shebang.
Johnny is a fascinating 1990s anti-hero, brilliant but dysfunctional-- easily a borderline psycho. Though self-assured he also seeks ( in his peculiar way) truths and values. He is cold, cynical and contemptuous ,yet understanding at times. He is a loner but one in need of human contact.
He meets several characters, all distinctive for better or for worse, some sleazy, all desperately lonely and maladjusted, all powerfully drawn, all of them naked -- naked meaning here not just bodies but minds and hearts. There's something Russian about this "The Lower Depths" meeting "Dead Souls", and there's something most British too: a blend of a certain English life today and throwbacks to the 50s and 60s anger of British cinema.
Johnny deals with those oddities with a mixture of sadism, contempt and occasional flashes of sympathy. He befriends briefly an inarticulate young Scot and his girl, then finds a kindred soul in a night watchman. Visiting an older woman, her pathetic offer of sex elicits a cruel refusal from Johnny. A waitress provides a bath then turns him out. And there's more in this semi-picaresque tale.
Some of these characters do not reappear, others do, like Jeremy (who also poses as Sebastian Hawkes), a wealthy, supercilious, vicious playboy who is the flat's landlord, treats women like dirt and gets away with it, and plans to kill himself at age 40. Jeremy ( Cruttwell) is an uncanny Dirk Bogarde look- and sound-alike, with touches of Laurence Harvey.
Brian the watchman( Wight), a calmly warm and likable older man with "the most tedious boring job in England," symbolically guards an empty building that Johnny calls "this post-modernist gas chamber." Both men are the two faces of the same coin and suffer from malaise. Both are cultivated readers, know the Bible inside out, have unfulfilled possibilities, understand each other and engage in talks full of metaphors, paradoxes, Nostradamus prophecies, the Mark of the Beast, Revelations, the Apocalypse, evolution ... It is a rambling session of sometimes delirious, sometimes astute arguments on philosophy, sociology, metaphysics and theology. It is a like a medieval "disputatio, " the ancestor of debating societies.
You might want to meet Brian, but none of the others, including the often sadistic Johnny. Yet whatever your reactions to him, he has undeniable presence and his intoxication with words and ideas has life. Johnny makes us question the intellectual complacency of most people.
"Naked" has no plot strictly speaking. Mike Leigh's method is to have his actors repeatedly improvise and come up with dialogues and situations out of which the final script emerges, a non high-concept scenario that defies description, not to mention summing up.
Leigh himself said: " My feelings about "Naked" are as ambivalent as my feelings about our chaotic late-20th century world, and probably as ambivalent as the film itself, which is, I hope, as funny as it is sad, as beautiful as it is anarchic. But I really don't want to pontificate about the film. I'd rather let it speak for itself." It does that, loudly, inchoately and mesmerizingly.
[Publ. April 1, 1994, by Edwin Jahiel]
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at edwinjahiel.com