Naked ★★★★★

What's it like being you? A bit hectic?

It speaks to David Thewlis' tremendous talent as an actor that he is able to make Johnny, an abrasive autodidact who is also pretty much an all-around piece of shit in a lot of ways, not just a compelling protagonist but even a sympathetic and dare I say almost likable/relatable one (although, that said, I don't think I could ever turn down Katrin Cartlidge, let alone that sad, odd cafe waitress). It's also sort of unfortunate that Leigh felt it necessary to reinforce our sympathies by contrasting Johnny with Jeremy/Sebastian's cartoonish villainy, which feels better suited for a Bret Easton Ellis novel or a second-rate Peter Greenaway film (although that last comparison does provide a stark reminder that Naked and The Cook, the Thief, the Wife, and Her Lover are both reactions to the same socio-political climate of post-Thatcherite Britain. Cue Johnny's sardonic response to Ewen Bremner's hapless cries of "Maggie!", "...She's gone, mate. Those days are over.")

The Jeremy stuff feels out of place only because every other character here is so richly-conceived and fully-realized, right down to the bit parts and minor characters Johnny meets during his vagrant wanderings (the aforementioned Bremner scene has always been among my favorites, but his encounter with the nightwatchman is equally memorable). One of the film's saddest/cruelest moments (among many) is Johnny's treatment of Sophie (Cartlidge) when she tells him that she understands him, because we almost believe that she does (I also love little, memorable details like the wooden "S" that seems to be one of Sophie's only possessions that she takes with her when she leaves the apartment). Where a lesser film could probably get away with surrounding Johnny with stock characters just based on the strength of Thewlis' performance alone, Leigh takes the extra step of surrounding him with actual people.

Considering that Leigh is often thought of as a chief purveyor of British "social realist" cinema, it was interesting to notice this viewing how deceptively stylized and even mannered the film is in certain respects, particularly the dialogue, which Thewlis often spouts off in rapid-fire, almost musical cadence (very far from the mumbling and awkward pauses one typically associates with "improvised", realist cinema). Of course, one could be tempted to attribute this to Johnny's particular erudite nature, but more often than not the other characters hold their own (Sophie in particular appears to be able to keep up with Johnny nearly quip for quip). Even the film's mise-en-scene is more stylized and theatrical than I had remembered (the film noir venetian blinds reflected on Johnny and the nightwatchman for example), and there's even some blocking in Sophie and Louise's apartment that feels almost screwball-like in places.

The film ultimately succeeds not just because of Thewlis' performance and the equally strong supporting roles, but also for the very reason that the dialogue is ultimately too clever and well-written to be truly "realistic". Johnny is a scoundrel, a nihilist, and a rapist, but he can still engage us with his words (although his verbosity can also get him into trouble, as he and the audience ultimately discover). Although I would rank the film's dialogue as some of the sharpest in cinema, it's also worth noting that it does ultimately serve a somewhat different function from the philosophical witticisms of a Whit Stillman or a Hal Hartley. Johnny can dazzle us, but his musings, while often compelling and at times even insightful, can also be rather daft (among all the awful things he does, I actually find one of his least sympathetic moments to be his musings on transhumanism that sound like nothing so much as the modern day nonsense espoused by tech gurus in Silicon Valley).

Johnny then, is decidedly not a mouthpiece for Leigh. His words are too weaponized, ultimately, to be particularly useful even when he is insightful (and he often is, almost in spite of himself). Naked is ultimately a portrait of a man smart enough to see through the bullshit of modern society but incapable or unwilling to use his intelligence in any sort of constructive way (this makes him, then, something of a kindred spirit to Charles in The Devil, Probably, and is also probably the reason I can find Johnny vaguely "relatable", perhaps more than I should?) Johnny is in a sense an "angry young man" in the mode of the so-called British Kitchen Sink dramas of an earlier era, although whereas in films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning or This Sporting Life, the characters played by Albert Finney and Richard Harris tended to be lumpen working-class brutes, only capable of expressing themselves with their fists, Johnny is instead a gutter philosopher in the mode of Baudelaire, having only words for weapons.

(As a side note, between this and Henry Fool I've come to realize that I probably need to buy a trench coat if I ever hope to achieve the coveted "intellectual degenerate" look...)

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