I am unsure whether I love or hate Mike Leigh's Naked; the only certainty is that I cannot easily shake it from my mind.
Although he is mostly known for his acidic, satirical comedies including High Hopes (1988) and Life is Sweet (1991), Naked marks Leigh's return to the dramatic territory of his first feature Bleak Moments (1971).
A sociological inventory of the film's essential milieu – a disintegrating London whose rootless inhabitants are going loudly, violently crazy – might make Naked seem like a filmic equivalent to rap-propaganda songs such as Grandmaster Flash's "The Message": gloom and doom around every dark street corner.
Yet this is not an overtly political film. Leigh seems less concerned than usual with delineating the social conditions of class and power, for one topic possesses him above all others: sex. Naked presents the grimmest and most grotesque portrait of contemporary sexual relations in cinema since Cassavetes' Husbands (1970).
As in that film, all sexual encounters are loveless, marked by violence, hysteria and alienation. Leigh seems strangely determined to present the sexes as prisoners within a vicious binary equation: men as sadistic rapists, women as compliant masochists.
The plot is a loose, somewhat unwieldy concatenation of various events, places and situations. Johnny (David Thewlis) flees Manchester and imposes himself upon ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp), who shares a tense London household with two other women (Katrin Cartlidge and Claire Skinner). Much of the film follows Johnny on a nightmarish ramble through the city, detailing his random encounters with strangers. Leigh intercuts this journey with that of Johnny's yuppie alter ego Jeremy (Greg Crutwell) – a worthy British equivalent to Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho.
Much of the film depends upon narrative details and moments of drama that are deliberately kept mysterious, undefined. Leigh strives for a certain, complex realism in this way, but he is not always in control of the enormous ambiguities unleashed. This difficulty shows: despite the acclaim given his work with actors, Leigh cannot help reducing several of the characters to irritating bundles of superficial mannerisms.
Over it all, a grand question looms: why is Leigh so driven to tell this story, to impart such a specifically pessimistic and misanthropic vision of sexuality? Naked cannot answer this question, but its aura of fear and loathing is palpable and compelling.
© Adrian Martin July 1994