A Review of Naked Lunch (1991) dir. David Cronenberg

Written by EM


I think I understood this movie less than I did the book, however I think I am being unfairly critical to it as I had come into this film with lesser expectations than I do with the rest of Cronenberg's films. I believe that his films suffer when they come into contact with non-linear stories (eXistenZ comes to mind), and I wasn't expecting much coming into Naked Lunch. My thoughs on eXistenZ are for another time, but as the film was driving between its own dimensions and time, it felt like its turns were too wide and jerky at points (Not unlike my own driving lol).

This is very much a linear-ization interpretation of the story of Naked Lunch, and while I am not mad at all at it, it does unfortunately lose some of the book's absurdity and experience. I think the fusion of Naked Lunch's setting (Interzone) and Burrough's own life was an interesting choice. I like how Cronenberg switches between "real-life" and Burroughs' life within the Interzone. However, I feel like this decision takes the film further away from Naked Lunch and more towards the story behind Naked Lunch.

The lack of scenes taken directly from the book supports this idea. Naked Lunch, despite its lack of overarching plot, is an incredibly cinematic book. Burroughs writes out transitions, such as when he writes "fade out to mambo music" in one chapter. You are sometimes in the perspective of a character, sometimes in the perspective of Burroughs himself, but always looking out onto the character, as though you aren't in anyone's perspective at all. For example, we see Dr. Benway both from the perspective of the character we meet him in, but also in a semi-omniscent perspective more typical of a third-person one. We only kind-of see Dr. Benway as the cold and cunning doctor that he is in the film. Him getting people hooked on junk is a part of the book, yes, but why is left to the imagination, which takes away from the experience. You are already confused by the time you come into the story, but in the book you are told why he's running all of these experiments on his citizens and how he gets them under his control. You don't really know the rules of the world but you know that the reality is much worse than the imagined. This does not come across in the film.

The lack of absurdity and Cronenberg's unwillingness to stray from a linear path also strips the story of its comedy. I mean, its Cronenberg, I am not expecting this to be the work of a comedic genius, but there are parts of the story that are comedic in the sense that it is so absurd its funny. A scene with Dr. Benway comes to mind, where he tries to massage the heart of a dying patient using a toliet plunger that he "cleans" but rinsing it with toliet water. She dies, of course, and he walks away as though nothing had happened, only to complain about his dealer cutting his cocaine with saniflush.

You may be asking what the point of all of this is, why I compare the book and film so heavily. I know that neither one will ever be each other, of course the change in medium will impact the experience and how a story is understood. My problem is that this is not Naked Lunch, but it could have been, which is the most disappointing thing about this whole film. Naked Lunch is full of disgusting and flesh-y scenes that Cronenberg would've done incredibly well, but that will not make up for the fact that this isn't Naked Lunch.

To Be Continued...