The story starts in New York in the 50s where bug exterminator Bill Lee (Peter Weller) runs out of extermination powder while on a job. It turns out that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) has been shooting up the bug power into her veins for a kick. It’s not the first and won’t be the last time that addiction enters the story. According to Joan, it “is a literary high, like Kafka.” It makes her “feel like a bug.” Bill himself has a history too with substances. It isn’t long before the story metamorphoses into a Kafkaesque labyrinth of nightmarish imagery.
It’s a film by David Cronenberg, which means we can expect elements of body horror and other grotesque effects. Remember the props and gross material effects in movies like The Fly (1986) and eXistenZ (1999). Naked Lunch, produced within that same Cronenberg era, starts out as a fairly normal film with certain film noir elements. Bill Lee is a serious man, dresses like a private detective, and jazz plays in the background. There’s something otherworldly about this New York, though. The colors, mostly orange and blue, are washed out, and before you know it giant bugs enter the scene.
We see Bill taking some drugs within the first 10 minutes and it is an easy conclusion to make that the whole film is a drugs trip. It’s also the least interesting interpretation. A dreamlike trip with weird imagery isn’t that interesting in itself, although a film like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) does an admirable job. But going beyond randomness, Naked Lunch wants to make points about addiction, schizophrenia and running away from inner feelings. Anyway, there is a story within the surrealist trip that sees Bill Lee involved in a secret government plot being orchestrated by giant insects. Do the bugs represent addiction?
Bill Lee moves to a port city in North Africa which is simultaneously a kind of inner space, called Interzone, where various characters interact with him and I suspect they symbolize the inner feelings and conflicts within Bill, including latent feelings of homosexuality and giving control to addiction. The story also references the writer William S. Burroughs, who wrote the book Naked Lunch, but Cronenberg’s film also adds elements from the writer’s life and other books. So I have heard afterwards.
Peter Weller’s Bill Lee is a hard man to sympathize with. He seems extremely detached, speaks flatly and the only times he shows any emotions have to do with the death of bugs. And those are emotions of shock and grief. It takes some patience therefore to stay with the story and an affinity for weird subject matters and the feeling of mystery. You can’t stay for the characters, because they are very flat and a bit odd. It’s accentuated by Cronenberg’s extreme close-ups and matter-of-fact portrayals of surrealist phenomena and sweaty faces. In addition, the production values are great. It’s a beautiful looking film, full of attention to the colors and props.
And even though the oddness of the characters is a deliberate choice – probably to simulate the effects of addiction and emotional struggle – you can’t stay with the film if you’re looking to identify yourself with anyone. Nothing about this is supposed to be soothing or easygoing. We’re toying with the darker shades of the human psyche here. Within this small subgenre of surrealist Weird psy-films, Naked Lunch offers some of the best material out there. Obligatory stuff if you are into it (and I am).
It’s a cold movie, despite its setting in North Africa. It’s lonely and lifeless and dry as the bug powders. Weller’s dead-eyed stare works well for it. For Bill, who is supposed to be Burroughs, writing is a dangerous business, for it reaches inwards, towards your vulnerabilities. That, I think, is what the movie is about. In that sense, it’s like a copper-colored Eraserhead (1977), mixed with Barton Fink (1991).