Thursday, February 5, 2009
You know, as much as I absolutely adored Happy-Go-Lucky, I almost wish I hadn't seen it yet. Going back through the rest of his oeuvre, HGL is just about the least representative starting place you could choose. Secrets & Lies displayed the comic bent of Happy, but it also contained a tragic edge that gave off a sense of personal doom even with its upbeat ending. Then I went farther back, to Leigh's 1993 film Naked, and I felt just as confused as before.
If Secrets & Lies put forth a certain amount of misery in the characters' interactions with each other, Naked casts any semblance of subtlety aside and goes straight for pitch-black nihilism. Leigh grabs your attention from the start with his hand-held camera run through a darkened alley ending in a close-up of a man sexually assaulting, possibly even raping, a young woman. She knocks the grungy man off and threatens him before walking into the night. The man stumbles in the other direction, finds and steals a car, and heads out on the road as the credits flash: "A film by Mike Leigh."
The man in question is Johnny (David Thewlis), a sort of wandering minstrel, although instead of music he spouts fatalist philosophy to anyone who will listen (or at least to anyone within earshot). Johnny wears all-black clothes that he's worn so long without washing they seem to be an extension of his ratty skin and sports a wispy beard that barely clings to his face, as if he somehow shaved but the hair never really fell off. You can practically smell him.
Johnny slinks his way back home to London to stay with his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp), who's revulsion for Johnny is outweighed only by her pity. Her point of view on our protagonist eventually became my own: Johnny is twisted, even borderline sadistic, but he's also very eloquent and witty. He even manages to seduce Louise's roommate Sophie with his philosophical musings.
Unlike Secrets & Lies, there's not a real narrative here, or at least not a focused one: Johnny spends his days roaming the streets as if they were his hobby; somehow he manages to charm everyone he meets: a night porter invites Johnny into the building he monitors, and the two strike up a philosophical discussion and gain a mutual understanding of one another. A Scottish couple lose each other, and Johnny comically tries to reunite them only for each to wander off once more. He even manages to woo a waitress and come back to her place, only for her to realize the underlying insanity under Johnny's wit and kick him out.
There's also a disturbing subplot involving Louise and Sophie's landlord Sebastian, a sadist and a rapist who torments his tenants for no other reason than because he's bored. If Johnny believes in the impending doom on mankind and other fatalistic thoughts, Sebastian is the reason why. Much of the film gets some dark laughs, but Sebastian moves through the story like a sex-hungry Lucifer, and the only person who finds his lines funny are him.
Naked is not a movie for the faint of heart; hell, it's not a movie for the particularly strong-willed. It contains such an utter hopelessness that the DVD should come packaged with a free therapy session. However, it manages to entertain because it makes Johnny such a pathetic figure: his bleak outlook on life manifests itself as crass and arrogant, but occasionally we break through to the desperation and fear of a man so smart he realizes the futility of it all. He grew up expecting nuclear holocaust, and after finally preparing for death it never came, and Johnny doesn't know how to react. In a perverse way, Naked is one man's quest to find meaning in life, only he knows that life is ultimately meaningless. Whatever. It's a masterpiece. Now someone hand me some Zoloft.