Heeeere’s Johnny, the desperate, destructive prophet-of-the-apocalypse protagonist of Mike Leigh’s brilliantly corrosive Naked (1993), a sexually explicit update to a long line of British films, plays, and novels about angry young men. Johnny might be mistaken for a mere misanthrope, so ultrademocratically does he direct his verbal abuse against self and other, young and old, male and female. But Johnny has a special weapon that he reserves for women alone. If he plays passive-aggressive with his tongue—his irreverent wit disarms and seduces even as it cuts to the quick—he uses his prick purely for punishment. Johnny’s a hate-fucker. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Does that seem familiar to you? Pity the woman who can’t see it coming, or who deludes herself that next time will be different. After all, he’s so smart, so sensitive, so needy in his anger, so little-boy-lost under the scruffy beard and adrenalized body language.
If Johnny were less magnetic, Naked wouldn’t have torn the sexual body politic from London to New York to everywhere else that Mike Leigh’s oeuvre was valued. The issue: was the film an exposé of misogyny or an endorsement? There were articles claiming that simply to put Johnny center screen was to valorize him, especially since the character was embodied by David Thewlis, one of the most compelling young actors of the decade. But that scorched-earth argument underestimates the complexity of the character and of the narrative Leigh constructed. Although Naked locates its subjectivity largely within Johnny, it also allows us to know him in ways he doesn’t know himself. From his outsider position, Johnny understands that contemporary society—post-Thatcher Britain, at the end of the twentieth century—is bent out of shape. He imagines that he resists its authority, but in fact, he takes advantage of the patriarchal order, confirming his masculine power by causing women pain. Leigh strips the character of his mystique to reveal his compulsive brutality and his badly wounded narcissism. We may sympathize—even empathize—with Johnny, but we don’t fall in love with him. He’s the guy we know we’re better off without.
Naked was the first of Leigh’s films to focus on a single character. Instead of his usual ensemble structure, Leigh follows Johnny, who is literally on the run from the first scene to the last, through a series of encounters, the majority of them with women. The film opens in medias res—specifically, in the middle of a brutal back-alley sexual encounter between a man we later learn is Johnny and an anonymous woman whom he and we never see again. It’s too dark to discern exactly what’s happening, but after a few seconds of what seems like mutual pleasure, the woman begins to resist and scream. Johnny persists and then abruptly flees. Is this a rape? Not exactly—more like consensual rough sex gone wrong—although, pragmatically, if a woman believes she’s been raped, then she has. As we will learn, what we’ve seen is Johnny’s modus operandi. In any case, it’s a stunning way to open a film. It doesn’t pull any punches in letting you know what’s at stake.
The opening scene is the first in a series of desultory one-on-one encounters. Late in the film, Johnny says that Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge), his ex-girlfriend’s roommate and one of his easy conquests, has “an irritating proclivity for negation,” adding, “I suppose she thinks it’s progressive.” Johnny may as well be describing himself. The statement clinches what we have suspected throughout: Johnny projects his feelings of anger and disappointment with himself onto others, and especially onto women. What makes him so effective as a seducer is that women intuit how much he identifies with them—with their oppression, outsiderness, and vulnerability. But if women are romantically vulnerable to Johnny, he is sexually vulnerable to them—and he hates them for “feminizing” him in this way. Thus he is compelled to bully, hurt, and disappoint them, in order to prove that he is more powerful. In itself, this is not an unusual masculine psychosexual syndrome. What makes Johnny so fascinating is that he disguises his need for power as honesty. Johnny is on a mission to “free” people from the hopes, illusions, and expectations that a hypocritical society foists upon them. He responds to Sophie’s desire for romance, to an older woman’s explicit request to be physically abused, and to his ex-girlfriend’s hope for a real relationship by humiliating them for their “incorrect” approach to life. He hurts women, and then he abandons them. In the end, however, there is no doubt that it is Johnny who is literally crippled by the self-hatred he turns on others.
To clinch the case that Johnny cannot be disposed of by branding him a rapist and a sadist, Leigh introduces a subplot involving a rich twit named Jeremy, who is, indeed, a rapist, a sadist, and most likely a psychopath. Jeremy uses his class privilege and power to subjugate, hurt, and humiliate women. There is nothing ambiguous about his actions or his desires (although, in psychoanalytic terms, fear of feminization may be at the root of his behavior as well). What is remarkable about Naked is that it reveals who Johnny is, not only by stripping him bare but also by juxtaposing him with the truly horrific thing he is not.
This essay originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2005 DVD edition of Naked.