Directed by: David Cronenberg.
Written by: David Cronenberg based on the novel by William S. Burroughs.
Starring: Peter Weller (Bill Lee), Judy Davis (Joan Frost / Joan Lee), Ian Holm (Tom Frost), Julian Sands (Yves Cloquet), Roy Scheider (Dr. Benway), Monique Mercure (Fadela), Nicholas Campbell (Hank), Michael Zelniker (Martin), Robert A. Silverman (Hans), Joseph Scoren (Kiki).
On the Criterion Blu-Ray of Naked Lunch, writer-director David Cronenberg (rightly) says that a faithful version of William S. Burroughs classic novel Naked Lunch would cost $100 million and be banned in every country. Burroughs’ book, as brilliant as it, is essentially un-filmable, as it contains so many different outshoots and tangents, so many different characters and places and has chapters that Burroughs has said were written so that they could be read in any order. The last line in the Wikipedia plot summary of the novel is “The book then becomes increasingly disjointed and impressionistic, and finally simply stops.” – Which is pretty much accurate. Filmmakers had tried for years to find a way to adapt Burroughs book, but were never able to get it off the ground. What Cronenberg does is take elements from Burroughs’ novel, elements from other Burroughs’ writing and elements from Burroughs’ life itself, and mixed it up with Cronenberg’s own unique sensibility and the result is one of the strangest, most disturbing films you will probably ever see.
The film stars Peter Weller as Bill Lee – an exterminator living in New York, who along with his wife Joan (Judy Davis) gets addicted to the bug powder that he uses in his job. Eventually, Bill will meet a giant bug who talks out of his ass, who tells him that his wife needs to be killed- and soon after, Bill and Joan will do their “William Tell” routine, that results in Bill shooting his wife in the head (much like the real Burroughs did to his wife). Bill will meet a giant Mugwump (you’ll have to see him to believe him) who “specializes in sexual ambivalence) and flees to Interzone – a strange locale, that somewhat resembles Tangiers, except of course the typewriters there have a mind of their own, and produce intoxicating narcotics when Bill produces something they like – which, of course, is the novel Naked Lunch. More characters enter his life – Tom and Joan Frost (Ian Holm, and Judy Davis again) a pair of, well, something, their strange maid Fadela (Monique Mercure), a homosexual playboy (Julian Sands) and the infamous Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider). There are conspiracies built within conspiracies – and everyone wants the “black meat” of the Brazilian centipede.
That’s the plot of the movie – kind of – but it doesn’t really give you an idea what the experience of watching Naked Lunch is really like. This is a surreal nightmare of a film, with lots of Cronenberg’s trademarked gross out special effects. Like his work on Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) and later eXistenZ (1999), the special effects here are about the melding of technology and biology. The typewriters in the movie are living, breathing, speaking organisms. And that’s just the start – there are other gross out special effects – a deranged sex scene in a birdcage, and another scene where one character takes off a suit – which is essentially a different character of a different gender. Cronenberg has often made movies about identity – about the horrors coming from within not outside forces, and the same is true of Naked Lunch.
It is also a film about writing – and oddly came out the same year as another masterpiece about writing – the Coen Brothers Barton Fink. That film was about a talentless hack who calls himself a writer. Naked Lunch is about a talented writer, who insists he is not a writer. Throughout the movie, Bill Lee is writing what will become Burroughs Naked Lunch – but refers to it all as “reports”. Oddly, Judy Davis plays the doomed muse in both the Coens and Cronenberg’s films – but plays three vastly different characters. Like Miranda Richardson in Cronenberg’s later film Spider (2002), the greatness of Davis’ performance is how she creates two different characters, that still feel as if they share an identity of sorts – if that makes any sense (and after seeing the movie, I think it does). Peter Weller, best known for playing Robocop, delivers a surprising great performance in Naked Lunch in the lead role. He has the same deadpan, monotone that actors often affect when playing Burroughs, as Viggo Mortenson did in On the Road and Ben Foster in Kill Your Darlings recently, but without some of the more overt theatrics those two actors used.
The film is a mind-fuck of a movie as only Cronenberg (or perhaps Lynch) could have made it. Perhaps one day someone will figure out how to make a “straight” version of Burroughs novel – yet I hardly think it would work as a movie – at least not nearly as well as it works as a novel. What Cronenberg did is what more filmmakers should do when confronted with a brilliant, yet difficult novel, and find a way to capture the spirit of the work, filtering it through their own sensibility and coming up with something wholly unique and different. Naked Lunch is like nothing else you’ve seen before – which is appropriate because the novel is like nothing else you’ve ever read before. The two works are startling different – but they share the same DNA.