Wednesday, September 25, 2013

End of the millennium psychosis blues

"What are you guarding in this particular post modernist gas chamber?"


"How would you know if somebody stole it?"

The most obvious thing to say about Mike Leigh's Naked - recently screened as part of the Barbican's Urban Wandering season - is that it is a violent film and that much of the violence is directed towards women. Its themes of misogyny and women as the much-abused objects of male frustration, makes it tough going, especially as the violence is sometimes played, if not exactly for laughs, then certainly with an eye for dark farce. Naked flips disorientatingly from black humour to something approaching slapstick and back again, meaning that you are never quite sure where the encounters it depicts are heading. It is as if Leigh, determined to make a diffident kind of film, keeps snapping back to his more usual fare.

Naked's inclusion in a season of films about London suggests though that it can be read as an exploration of the city as much as human relationships. London is portrayed here with an almost apocalyptic, end-of-the-millennium bleakness. 

It's almost impossible to watch any film made in London over the last thirty years without it in some way offering a commentary - however inadvertent - on the city's gentrification, but Naked's choice of locations makes it particularly revealing in this respect.

It begins with a violent sexual encounter in a Manchester backstreet from which Johnny - the film's anti-hero - escapes in a stolen car. In a brilliant opening sequence, he drives to London through the night along an almost deserted motorway before dumping the car by the side of the road somewhere on the outskirts of the city.  Somehow he finds his way to his ex-girlfriend's flat in Dalston*. For the next few days he careers around London, taking in Soho streets, West End offices and a particularly dystopian scene below what looks like a motorway flyover.

I had assumed this latter scene was filmed below the Westway but at the Q+A that followed the film's screening, Mike Leigh revealed it, not without irony, to be Shoreditch. Appropriately enough, these days the same spot comes complete with a pair of decommissioned, graffiti covered tube trains hoisted up on to a warehouse roof and used as studios for hipster design companies

The use of buildings and settings is actually superbly handled throughout. The Dalston flat manages to be both absolutely unremarkable and highly theatrical. The curving flight of stairs up to its elevated front door adds a spatial drama to the frequent comings and goings, as well as the seemingly final departure of Johnny. And the interior, with its weak sunlight creeping in behind curtains, manages to be neither comically scummy nor particularly wholesome. Its ordinary, vaguely but not too obviously unappealing, like any number of flats you might have passed through in your time.

There are two exceptional urban scenes in the film though. The first is filmed in Soho where the camera sits closely cropped on an Italian delicatessen window late at night. There is a general sense of chaotic activity so it takes a while to realise that our attention is being directed to one person in particular. Or rather two, because Johnny, slumped in a doorway is watching the same guy as us, a frantic, aggressive young man marching up and down the road shouting for a missing girl. The familiar desperation of a place like Soho with its fleeting, potentially electric, encounters is captured brilliantly. 

Later on Johnny finds himself in the doorway of an office block, this time being observed by the building's security guard. The guard lets him in, allowing the rather brilliant exchange at the top of this post to take place. 

The two wander the corridors of the empty building, following the monotonous regime of the security guard and exchanging equally tortured theories on life, the universe and everything. As in real life, Johnny's deep cynicism and nihilistic theorising steamroller all over the security guard's vague, hopeful humanism.

A word too about Johnny, who remains one of the best, most compelling film characters ever created. The film is really nothing without him and the other characters don't come close to his complexity and disturbing charisma. This is one of the faults for the film's detractors of course, the fact that Johnny's relenetlessly bullying monologues are never challenged. He rampages through the lives of those around him, smashing away at their already fragile self-esteem and freaking them out with his elaborate, baroque conspiracy theories. 

He is strangely, eerily familiar, like someone you might have genuinely met once in a bar. He's both fascinating and terrifying company, forever waiting for the next person on whom to inflict his frustrations and formidable intelligence in order to undermine whatever weak resolve they may have formed that life is basically worth living.

There are undoubtedly some poorly drawn characters in the film too. The Porsche-driving, sadistic yuppie Sebastian seems comically absurd now, with his endless, sneeringly ludicrous references to sex. "Have you ever eaten smoked salmon after making love?" he asks at one point, as this was both the height of decadence and erotic transgression. And Clare Skinner's stuttering, neurotic control freak of a nurse is rather silly too, putting a speedy end to the madness that has engulfed her flat while she has been away in sit-com style.

* For location geeks, this is at the junction of Shacklewell Lane and Downs Park Road

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