Naked Lunch (1991)

Director:  David Cronenberg
Cast:  Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, Julian Sands
Plot:  After developing an addiction to the substance he uses to kill bugs, an exterminator accidentally murders his wife and becomes involved in a secret government plot being orchestrated by giant bugs in an Islamic port town in Africa.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery

Awards:  Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlin).
Runtime:  115min
Rating:  M18 for heavy drug content, bizarre eroticism, and language.

Naked Lunch sounds like the title of a provocative film.  To some extent, that is true. Directed by Canadian auteur David Cronenberg, the film is a loose adaptation of William S. Burroughs' novel, once considered unfilmmable, and now still considered unfilmmable. 

Yet after the cult success of films such as The Fly (1986) and Dead Ringers (1988), one would have felt that if there was anyone who could bring Burroughs' non-linear, loosely connected chapters to the big screen, it would be Cronenberg.  The extremely heated debate surrounding the subject matter of the book also complements Cronenberg's fascination with controversy, which arguably reached its pinnacle in Crash (1996).

Try as you may, but Naked Lunch is difficult to comprehend from a logical perspective. The situation is worse if you have not read Burroughs' novel before.  

The film combines elements in the novel with some snippets of Burroughs' real life, including a scene in which the lead character, Bill Lee (Peter Weller), accidentally shoots his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), in her head in a macabre variation of the William Tell routine, sparking the film's main 'narrative'.  

It is difficult to even briefly describe the plot in Naked Lunch; it will not make any sense.  The film is like a mystery-fantasy-drama topped with fillings of bizarre scenes.

Because of the nature of the plot, it is hard to be engaged by it.  However, at least the film's array of not-so-normal characters keep things borderline interesting.  Be prepared for some disturbing scenes, some of which are the hallucinations of Bill, while others straddle the line between reality and fantasy, both of which are not certain in anyone's mind, let alone Bill's, who seems remarkably sane.  

Cronenberg does not compromise on his vision, and true to his auteurial roots, he gives us some shocking moments including a crazy scene of a man-insect having brutal sex with another man in a cage.

Naked Lunch's style is a throwback to the mystery-noir films of the 1970s such as Polanski's Chinatown (1974), though it adopts a more retro-cool look.  Accompanied by a spirited jazzy score by long-time collaborator Howard Shore, Cronenberg's film is a strange hybrid of visuals and sound, which when taken as a whole is somewhat unclassifiable. 

Naked Lunch is not easy to register and will lose most of its audience from the second act. Technically, it is a well-made film with some ingenious showcase of makeup and non-CG special effects.  But even as an admirer of Cronenberg's cinema, I find Naked Lunch challenging to like.

Verdict: Bizarre, yes. Engaging, no. Cronenberg tries too hard to be himself, alienating fans with an all-too literal adaptation of Burroughs' novel.

GRADE: C- (5.5/10 or 2.5 stars)

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