Naked (1993)

Dir. Mike Leigh. Starring David Thewlis, Lesley Sharp, Katrin Cartlidge

In the early ’90s, Johnny (Thewlis) is an iconoclast, a true man alone whose perpetually noisy solo meanderings recall the Ancient Greeks. There’s some Diogenes in Johnny, although he is even more aimless than the original and far less likely to befriend a dog. He picks up the Odyssey in one scene with a fondness in his face befitting a wanderer, though he is certainly no warrior. Twice in one night he is beaten, first by a stick-up artist, ha ha, who tires of Johnny much faster than the girl from the cafe (Gina McKee) or, indeed, anyone else in the past couple days. Second he is found by a gang of hooligans, perhaps even skinheads, who lay down a terrific walloping on the prone and helpless Johnny. It’s not as if he doesn’t enjoy punishment a little bit, though. For whatever reason, he has an irrevocable effect on Sophie (Cartlidge), who is disorganized and spacey before he shows up and utterly unhinged and liquid afterwards. Despite her pleas to stay, he leaves and spends the better part of two days on the streets of London. It is his first decision that is unpredictable, or unexplainable. Somehow even the rape—is it a rape? It certainly looks that way—in the first minutes of the film seems easier to understand. Where Johnny’s need to go is mostly tacit, the fact of his sexual misconduct, probably crime, is a loud societal imprint on the movie. Leigh is not frequently interested in the evil of men, for their weaknesses and failings are frequently enough for him. But Naked is different from his other work not simply because of a different color palette or a cast without Timothy Spall. (Peter Wight plays a security guard who, in a different Leigh movie, would have been Spall.) The society that Johnny lives in and helps to further, the world which he believes might end sometime in August 1999, is one of enormous violence against women. Leigh makes an interesting turn here; his focus is not primarily economic but social, and he chooses a wide lens in viewing what “violence against women” can entail.

Much has been made in Naked of its two misogynistic men, Johnny and Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell). Jeremy is the obvious predator between the two, the man whose behavior is well beyond the pale of what’s acceptable. He seems to thrive on women telling him that they don’t want him, to stop, to go away. There is no motive given for this insidious behavior, except perhaps for the fact that he is the only wealthy character in the movie. As the landlord of the place where Sophie and Louise (Sharp) live, he can walk into their flat without invitation or welcome. He rapes Sophie as we’ve seen him rape someone else earlier in the movie and then sticks around through the night. Neither Sophie nor Louise can figure out a way to get him out that may not lead to some kind of reprisal in their housing situation, or worse, some kind of reprisal they cannot forestall should he come into their flat some night with more of the same on his mind. In the end, only Louise threatening him with a knife manages to push him away. This is its own desperate measure with some level of “nothing to lose” strategy behind it, as Louise has decided she wants to go home to Manchester. She has been wise enough to know that Jeremy is bad news from the beginning, and yet she also has a fascinating little picture on her vanity: it’s Marlon Brando in his wife-beater from A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley may be beefcake and Johnny more a string bean. Stanley may be canny where Johnny is cerebral. One may even sympathize with Stanley and Johnny at certain moments in the way that passion tends to fascinate. But they are not so different from one another in the way they treat women. They expect to have the last word, and both of them use their voices first, shouting down opposition before they can stoke their fires enough to build up steam. Louise and Johnny used to date, and she seems to understand him as well as anyone else in the picture. She chased Jeremy off with a knife only a few hours after the girl from the cafe chased off Johnny with a strongly worded request to leave. Jeremy leaves without saying much, but Johnny fires his Parthian shot and aims it directly at the girl’s heart after she has done nothing worse than been made terrifically uncomfortable by her pushy houseguest.

There’s a type of person we’ve all met at least once. S/He pushes us over and over again to the edge of our patience to prove that we won’t reject them, and then when we lose our temper they take it as proof that they are unlovable. Johnny is such a difficult person, proving it over and over again with an incredible crop of strangers. With the girl from the cafe and the woman from the apartment (Deborah MacLaren), he pushes at them, fights with them, bites the hand feeding him over and over again. The security guard has been remarkably generous to Johnny, who appears at his doorstep like any other homeless wretch in London. Yet he allows Johnny to come into the building, gives him some food out of his lunchbox, has a conversation, even reveals little bits of himself. He shows Johnny a woman in the window who he has never had the guts to do anything more than spy on. Johnny immediately goes over to that woman after leaving the security guard, decides to bang her, and then leaves, all the time under the security guard’s nose. There’s no good reason for him to act like that towards the man he betrays, the woman he rejects, or the woman he lambasts, and yet he indulges himself. It is a pleasure to burn, and it is uncomfortable to be wanted too much. Something in him recoils at being wanted in a way which is unhealthy and unattractive. It’s what chases him out of the house originally, when Sophie climbs all over him after a morning of semi-violent sex, and it’s what chases him out for good, too. Louise tells him that she wants him to return with her to Manchester. She leaves, intending to return one last time to the apartment, and Johnny sees his chance. Still limping badly—there’s good reason to believe his ankle is broken—he leaves the flat with the sun bearing down on his back. He walks in the middle of the road, more hopping than anything else. A bird with a broken wing will be eaten in the wild; who knows what will become of an enormously stubborn young man with a little parcel of cash and a foot that’s defeating him with every hop-skip.

In a movie full of strange people, there’s something amusingly reassuring about Louise and Sophie’s normie roommate, Sandra (Claire Skinner). She’s the Harry Lime of Naked, appearing at the very end of the movie and changing the trajectory of it entirely. The other women in this movie, with the possible exception of the girl from the cafe, seem to have come splattered. Sophie and the woman in the apartment are so unwound, like unraveled yarn balls. Louise is wan and tired. But Sandra is, despite the long flight from Africa, clean and sprightly. Her hair, tied back neatly, seems to glow compared to everyone else’s dim and greasy ‘dos. She wears white shorts that no one else could have kept half as pristine.

We had almost gotten used to the idea of Johnny and Jeremy, Louise and Sophie, strange lonely people in the London nighttime. Sandra comes home to two strange men, one of them leering and the other in the kind of condition that should have sent him to the hospital. Her reaction is one part disgust, two parts disbelief. She tends to Johnny’s ankle as best she can, leaves Jeremy to Louise—her attitude is essentially that Louise should know better—and then comes up with a plan for herself that she puts into action just as Johnny leaves. “My bath,” she says. “Hot toast. Hot milk. Hot water bottle. Bed.” And it’s her more or less typical reaction to Johnny that prefaces his departure. She does not indulge his conversation, which comes in the rapid-fire formula we know so well. He flirts, and she simply goes away, describing his continued presence as the “tin lids,” the last straw. Without her there, it’s as if Johnny no longer exists, and he seems to know that as he drops away into the ether while she closes her eyes, surrounded by bubbles.

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