Bright Lights Film Journal

Pricks in December: Mike Leigh’s Naked

“Oh, that is excessive”

In Naked, Mike Leigh combines irony and a very strict form of realism, which might have been the predominant elements of his style for some time, to achieve results that any surrealist might envy. Indeed, the irony is so intense that it is impossible to tell for sure what happens in many scenes, giving the film a flavor both familiar and delightful to anyone acclimated to the modernism which is now so often said to be old-fashioned. Mike Leigh’s realism allows for few narrative devices of preparation, and since the camera is only allowed to show plausible slices of reality, the viewer must supply a great many explanations for herself. Accordingly, the film operates on viewers’ experience to produce results which can differ widely for different viewers. That so many can consider Naked fascinating, stimulating, and enjoyable, without agreeing on simple questions like “what is this movie about?”, is surely a result of the active participation in understanding forced by the director’s style.

The protagonist Johnny (David Thewlis) is an attractive and intelligent opportunist who rarely takes a bath, and seems to be penniless and even homeless because he can’t bear the thought of taking a job. He’s discovered in medias res with a partner whose identity is never fully specified. Her angry threats of retaliation precipitate the action: Johnny leaves Manchester for London. So much is unambiguous, but it is interesting to note that little else is. Most Americans will interpret the situation as some kind of rape, but this interpretation is not determined by any information in the scene. It’s possible to think that the woman agreed to have sex in an alley as a matter of course, and became offended only when Johnny’s roughness went out of bounds. If the woman refused to have sex with him, she was one of the few who could refuse him anything; as with others, he damaged her in exactly the degree she allowed him to touch her.

Jeremy (Greg Crutwell), an unattractive individual shown first in a fitness parlor, mechanically propositioning and being rejected by his masseuse, is the antagonist. He never struggles with Johnny, exactly; in fact, they have no interaction at their only meeting. Rather, he serves as a generator of irony throughout the film: where Johnny is penniless, Jeremy can talk on his car phone about the possibility of losing thousands of pounds; he can drink champagne in French restaurants where Johnny must be grateful for canned beans; he enjoys an explicitly sadistic form of sexual interaction where Johnny seems only to explore somewhat naively the enhancement violence brings to his sexual experiences; Johnny has a sense of humor that convinces us of his intelligence and probably serves as the basis of his irresistibility, where Jeremy has only an artificial laugh that embarrasses and disgusts us with its falseness; nobody notices Jeremy, where everyone is attracted to Johnny and is to some extent harmed by him; Johnny’s accent is low-class, and Jeremy has an accent that may (or may not) imply that he has not earned his advantages.

The question of English accents is important in this film, to the extent that there is at least one scene which is incomprehensible unless it is taken into account, and unfortunately, our diet of Merchant/Ivory films and Masterpiece Theater will give Americans little assistance here. Is Jeremy an aristocrat, with inherited money, or a yuppie, with an acquired accent and self-made money? If Jeremy is a yuppie, he may not be a very successful one. We see him discussing the loss of 30,000 pounds, and while the false laugh is an extremely important weapon in the yuppie arsenal, it should sound natural: no yuppie could survive long with Jeremy’s inept approximation.

Perhaps Jeremy inherited his money and tried to assume the trappings of yuppie success. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; in any case, the film contrasts Johnny and Jeremy to illustrate an irony between (money)/(aristocratic accent)/(vile personality) and (indigence)/(Iow-class accent)/(attractive sense of humor), and it inevitably raises the question: What separates a persuasive and energetic opportunist from yuppie success? No simple answer emerges, and Naked cannot be considered a My Fair Lady for the 1990s.

Johnny and Jeremy are brought into equivalence within the private parts of Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge, who gives the most sensitive and subtle performance in the film), if equivalence is not too strong a term: we should claim no more than congruence, perhaps, if the congress has occurred in different private parts. Jeremy relates with Sophie doggie-style, and she protests at every stroke; later he hopes (facetiously) that he hasn’t given her AIDS. We can claim with confidence that our antagonist has forced himself on Sophie’s unwilling posterior, where the protagonist has taken pleasure in an all too willing anterior part. Not too much should be made of this distinction. Sophie is dressed in a costume that in the days of modernism would have identified her as a masochist, but in these post-everything days is simply a costume of stylish youth. Ironically, Sophie is a masochist, and proves it by telling Johnny she loves him in a way calculated to ensure he will reject her, and, on the other hand, collaborating to an unnecessary degree when Jeremy sadistically rapes her. Still, Sophie seems to resist the idea that Jeremy has had any effect on her. When her roommate, having seen her bruises, asks her what has been going on, she replies with stoicism that she doesn’t want to talk about it: to say anything more in Jeremy’s hearing would be to admit to him that she has noticed his intrusion. She similarly maintains her autonomy when she rejects his extravagant, unsolicited payment for her services (while this is offered as the final, humiliating move in a sadistic performance, it must have a double meaning: it is intended to indemnify Sophie for any hurt or loss. Johnny of course would exit with an unambiguous injury). All of Jeremy’s nastiness can be seen as a somewhat studied attempt to get somebody’s attention. He is not a particularly competent sadist: when he rips Sophie’s stocking, he has clearly gone beyond her bounds (she indicates this with a disgusted “Oh, that is excessive”), but oblivious to her reaction he looks up, hoping to see some kind of sexual response, which would be the equivalent of approval. Oddly enough, Jeremy may be the nice guy, finishing last.

So what is this movie about, and why do I like it so much? It seems to attempt to say something universal about power, and more specifically, about violence, in sexuality. It succeeds, and gives us some scenes of mythic and surreal beauty, none of which I’ve dared to describe above. David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge give great performances, and everyone else is very good. Go see it, if you haven’t already. It will give you something to talk about.

Originally published in issue 14 (1994) of the discontinued print edition.