William Lee is an exterminator. He lives with his wife, Joan, in a small apartment in New York City. It is 1953. Joan is addicted to the powder he uses for asphyxiating cockroaches. "It's a very literary high," she says, injecting her right breast. "What is a literary high?" he asks, feigning interest. "It's a Kafka high," she says. "You feel like a bug."

William Burroughs is the author of the novel, from which Canadian director David Cronenberg has adapted a screenplay. He wrote about sex and drugs in a way that shocked people. During the Fifties, the uniform of Beat poets was coffee shop casual. Burroughs wore suit and tie, with a homburg.

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Lee wears suit and tie, with a homburg. He is an author as well, although tells his friends Hank and Martin, "I gave up when I was 10 - too dangerous." This is not true. He is writing Naked Lunch, a comic novel of strange intensity. Hank and Martin are like Kerouac and Ginsberg. They argue in the diner about creative technique and then go to Lee's apartment when he's out to read poetry and copulate with his wife.

Cronenberg incorporates elements of science fiction into ordinary life, as if they have always been there. He is known as the master of mutation, with cult shockers like The Fly and Scanners. His imagination is precise. He investigates paranoia with the objectivity of a brain surgeon and accepts hallucination as the conceptual norm of the subconscious.

Lee is arrested for the possession of drugs and is taken to a small room at the police station, where he explains that the "illegal substance" is bug powder. The law officers open a cardboard box and lay it on the table. Inside is a giant beetle whose body, protected by ebony wings, is a pink-lipped anus. The anus talks to Lee and tells him that his wife is an agent for Interzone.

Burroughs questions the definition of reality, the relevance of moral codes, the danger of absolutes. His mouthpiece announces, "Homosexuality is the best cover an agent ever has." He is the mistress of disguise and Cronenberg relishes such deception. When a typewriter opens its vulva to the caresses of the operator, it is an act of sensual complicity.

Lee tells Joan, "I guess it's about time for our William Tell routine." She expects an adrenalin rush, not a bullet in the forehead. He flees to Tangier, into the heart of Interzone, to finish his novel. Ex-pat literati contemplate younger navels and live a life of decadence, while continuing to display the arrogance of an artistic elite. Dealers in the addictive black meat of crushed centipedes and the alluring brain juice of mugwumps enjoy a monopoly in mind alteration.

Cronenberg has invented a method of materialising the writer's obsession, which is not dissimilar to that of junkies. Lee's typewriter becomes a clone of the anus beetle, a talking, crawling insect that is alive, volatile and opinionated. When he borrows a more sophisticated model from a resident bisexual scribbler, whose wife resembles Joan, his rejected machine attacks and destroys it.

"I'm writing 'All is lost! All is lost!'" Lee says. "That's all I've ever written." He is neither inquisitive, nor surprised. He takes an Arab boy to bed and the wife of the scribbler. He has no preference, no desire, except for the black meat. "This is all happening telepathically," he explains. Morocco absorbs him until nothing is tangible anymore, not even the novel, as labyrinths of perversity lead to an underlife where typewriters act as sexual aids.

Peter Weller has the gaunt features of Burroughs. His performance as Lee is so internalised that it has no expression, creating a deadening passivity. Beside him, Judy Davis, as the two women, rages against the vacuity of romance. She carries the bruises of someone who has lost the talent to trust.

Jim Isaacs's creatures are remarkable, as is the film - unique, disturbing, wicked. It loses its way in the web of its own imaginings, but remains, for all that, a paraorgasmic experience.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2004
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Naked Lunch packshot
An addict writer descends into a hallucinatory existence after accidentally killing his wife.
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Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg, based on the novel by William Burroughs

Starring: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider, Monique Mercure, Nicholas Campbell, Michael Zelniker, Robert A Silverman, Joseph Scorsiani

Year: 1991

Runtime: 110 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Canada

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