Naked Lunch (1991)
Directed by David Cronenberg

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * *

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David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, while not a filmed version of William Burroughs' novel, brilliantly reflects the sentiments and humor of the author's writings and distinguishes itself as an important artistic work in its own right.

Bill Lee, who combines elements of characters from Burroughs' literary works with aspects of the writer himself, is working as an exterminator when he accidentally shoots his own wife. Subsequently, fleeing to the North African city of Interzone, he becomes involved in an intergalactic conspiracy involving talking insects, drug dealers, and the mysterious Dr. Benway.

Cronenberg has created in Naked Lunch one of the most strangely captivating and profoundly affecting movies I have ever encountered. His portrayal of the increasingly unhinged Bill Lee is especially wonderful. Thanks to the director's skillful presentation of the character's world, the viewer is rarely certain of what is intended as real, within the context of the movie, and what is meant as hallucination. While some details are revealed to be delusions, as Bill's belief he has travelled from New York to Interzone, which does not appear to exist outside of his imagination, other aspects of the story remain vague and uncertain. Even moments of lucidity only disorient. The viewer is made aware of illusions, but he is not allowed to distinguish them from reality. Such an approach, by immersing the moviegoer in Bill's madness, enables the director to brilliantly bring to life the protagonist's deteriorating mental condition.

The viewer thus sees how the events in which Bill participates are informed more by his perspectives and imaginings than they are by the actions of those around him and how even the environment in which he lives is dominated by his deluded perceptions. Bill's physical world is, consequently, fluid and changeable. Interzone, for example, is usually depicted as a stereotypical North African city, but the moviegoer is occasionally shown that it has houses exactly like those found in the United States. The view from Bill's window is sometimes of an Arabic casbah and sometimes of an American metropolis.

The utter weirdness of this illusory world is further enhanced by Cronenberg's use of a variety of strange props, which also make Naked Lunch a visual delight. At various points in the film, the director confronts the viewer with such oddities as a huge insect who speaks to Bill through a gaping pink anus on its back, pallid, emaciated, and ghastly mugwumps, who dispense intoxicating fluids from phallic protuberances on their heads, rooms filled with the desiccated bodies of giant black centipedes, typewriters that transform either into conspiratorial beetles or writhing, aquatic monstrosities endowed with a variety of sexual appendages, and much more. All of these lend the movie a wonderful strangeness and unreality.

The film's effectiveness is not, however, simply a result of the director's evocations of a peculiar physical universe. Peter Weller's portrayal of Bill Lee is marvelous and subtle. He provides the viewer with no answers and leaves the ambiguities of the script and directing unresolved. Bill, consequently, remains an enigmatic figure. The performances of the other actors are also exceptional, although no one acquits himself as well as does Weller.

What is more, while Bill's story is sad, and the viewer does feel compassion for him, Cronenberg adds a real emotional complexity to his film by arousing the moviegoer's appreciation of the absurd. The consistent strangeness of Naked Lunch allows the viewer to enjoy the beauty ludicrous and bizarre things have as ludicrous and bizarre things. The director is clearly aware of the delight a person can get from viewing the weird and the eery, and he allows the viewer to savor such pleasures. Moreover, these two emotive strands, the sympathy focussed on a man's tragic mental deterioration and the enjoyment of the bizarre, are well integrated throughout the film and consistently complement one another. The strange elements manifest to the viewer Bill's disconnect from reality and the consequences of his mental states, and an awareness of these factors enhances the movie's tragic elements. Likewise, the film's sorrowful content reminds the moviegoer of much of the absurdity of human existence.

Naked Lunch is a truly great movie. It is undoubtedly Cronenberg's best work to date. While the director has ventured into similar territory in many of his other films, he has never done so as successfully as he does here.

Review by Keith Allen

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