Judy Davis chomps softly into Naked Lunch: into twisted behavior, into the nuanced meat of the moment, into the juicy black center of the psychic abyss. Bombed-out but supernally alert and incongruously amused, she injects a syringe into her chest and lays back—satiated but restive, a mental acrobat balancing on a razor-thin ledge. “I thought you were finished doing weird stuff,” Peter Weller’s character says half reproachfully, half wishfully. “I thought I was too,” she sighs, beneath a mask of perfect apathy. “But I guess I’m not.” Speaking with spacey deliberation, she’s watching herself from the shadows behind heavy-lidded eyes, watching her partner’s microscopic reactions, drinking the whole mise-en-dream in. Or shooting it up, as is junkies’ wont.
Her performance is a marvel of abrasive containment, whorled and unassimilable, putting out feelers of intelligence and unease that inflect the entire film. In actuality, it’s two performances, split down the middle: Davis plays bookend Joans, a pair of dissonant variations on the theme of the archetypal Beatnik Muse. The first is Joan Lee, addict wife of Weller’s William Lee. The couple’s based very loosely—allegorically, phantasmagorically—on William S. Burroughs and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer, in the fraught period prior to his writing Naked Lunch. They banter like hardboiled eggheads who’ve been swallowed into the cracks between The Big Sleep and Beckett.
Vollmer wasn’t a writer herself but had a warped mindset—and mordant attitude—that rubbed off on the Beats she hung out with, her homosexual partner Burroughs most of all. Davis’s Joan Lee is a small, consummate portrait of a non-artist whose critical-depressive sensibility exerts a gravitational influence on the embryonic talents circling around her. She infuses this Muse-as-Femme-Fatale gimmick with feeling and doomed agency, hitting those notes/tropes with the insistent repetition of another kind of vamp—the jazz variety, which Davis enacts by riffing outside well-worn structures the way Ornette Coleman’s alto sax on the soundtrack bends bebop lines into barbed, jittery soul-cries.
In 1951, Burroughs and Vollmer engaged in a drunken party trick, where he was supposed to shoot a glass off her head but missed and killed her. In the film, this is staged as though part of a mutual pact with fate: “I guess it’s about time for our William Tell routine,” the shooter murmurs in a bored trance. Joan Lee’s death by misadventure sets William’s writing wheels (within wheels) in motion. He flees to Tangier, or rather its Burroughsian doppelganger, Interzone. There Davis returns in the person of Joan Frost, also half of a literary couple (superficially inspired by the expatriate writers Paul and Jane Bowles): a resemblance either purely coincidental or another piece in his mosaic of increasingly paranoid delusions.
Davis gives this Joan a high-strung/high-gloss finish, a witty mutation suggesting Bette Davis’s tightly calibrated melodramatics filtered through the avant-artifice of someone like the Wooster Group’s Kate Valk. A writer with problems of her own, Joan Frost is an estranged outsider in a candy land of the perverse, married to a neurotically detached, possibly homicidal aesthete, and laboring under a spell cast by her dominatrix of a housekeeper, Fadela.
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Primarily known as a costume and production designer, this multitalented visionary deserves to be more widely recognized as one of the most important creative forces behind the Czechoslovak New Wave.
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Desperately seeking community in her college years, the writer discovered the world of experimental cinema when she stumbled on a short-film program at an art-house in Manchester, England.