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.
Joan One is the portrait of a woman as domestic performance artist, blurring the line between victim and author of her milieu. Joan Two’s a clipped study of the vulnerability inherent in opening creative veins. Joan Lee surreptitiously repurposes “bug powder” her husband uses in his work as an exterminator: she uses it as a heroin substitute, epitomizing the movie’s algebra of displacement and taking the old proverb about putting poison in your veins to its logical contusion. Joan Frost brandishes a cigarette like a baton, as if conducting a séance to contact the ghosts of movie history, channeling the spirits of noir romanticism as though in a trance.
In both roles, Davis manifests wry, self-destructive tendencies—necrosexual urges?—that seep into symbiotically intuitive exchanges with Weller, shaping the distinctive wavelength of this Naked Lunch. The film takes the form of a Gnostic comedy of manners and addictions, an antisocial space as stylized and exacting as the strictures of Austen, Wilde, or Lubitsch. A space where nothing is true and everyone’s a double agent, a single sleeper-cell organism, a figment of the author’s imagination: Lee’s? Burroughs’s? Cronenberg’s?
Plot here is a conspiracy to impose order and intention on disintegration—an allegorical McGuffin purporting to show how Burroughs progressed from junkie to writer, and spun addiction and paranoia into what became Naked Lunch. The film’s double-agency is embodied by Davis, a two-woman resistance movement whose headstrong corporeal presence(s) obliterate conventional wisdom and clichéd narrativity, in keeping with the Burroughs/Lee motto “Destroy rational thought.” Taking Burroughs’s hallucinatory monologues in the novel and collaging the contents with scraps of biographical and apocryphal detail, Cronenberg puts the Joan Vollmer figure at the center of the book’s Creation Myth, and of Burroughs’s transformation into a writer. As Davis and Weller play them, William and Joan Lee are savvy intellects passing as taciturn bug killer and jaded syringe-moll. They have the cerebral chemistry of two minds sharing a bulletproof sensibility—creatively blocked, emotionally stunted people who have resigned themselves to internal exile.
Having this version of Joan Vollmer elbow her way back into the Burroughs mythos expands the scope of his world and material: in a movie about a writer’s attempt to exorcise his demons and then take possession of them, Davis provides a crucial touchstone. Instead of “the Little Woman,” here she’s Burroughs’s/Lee’s partner in extremis: an oracle Braille-reading her own entrails. Above all else, as fantastical and unhinged as everything around Davis might seem, from talking cockroach-typewriters with sex organs to secret mind-control regimes turning free will into a shell game, there is never a second on-screen when she is not one hundred percent believable.
Davis situates herself in Naked Lunch like an advance scout in hostile territory, scoping out the terrain, her consciousness a stream of molasses, grace notes registering like sticky droplets. In the scene at the beginning, when Bill walks in on Joan Lee as she’s injecting herself, she half-apologizes: “You weren’t supposed to see this.” An Ornette Coleman alto solo slices through the room like a singing chainsaw. “Well, now that I’m seeing it, what is it?” The seedy air is cut with low-rent affection, the way you’d cut junk, as Joan alludes, with baby laxative. They squabble over her shooting up all the precious bug powder like a tapped-out husband and housewife arguing over the grocery bill. They share a cozy claustrophobia, snug as two sniping bugs in a moldy rug, as Coleman’s sax slips back in the woodwork, spinning atonal choruses out just beneath the duo’s needling repartee.
Davis inhabits this broken world, this scene, not as a movie star but as a heightened version of a specific type: the charismatic troublemaker, the congenital disrupter, someone who can’t leave either well enough or bad enough alone. Disheveled but undaunted, she dangles her bare feet like a teenager at a slumber party. She explains herself and her fix with a connoisseur’s touch: “It’s a very literary high.” Um-hm. “It’s a Kafka high,” she says, drawling the name as “Calf-ka.” “You feel like a bug.” Weller’s staggered, near-imperceptible smile at the punch line is the minimalist equivalent of a standing ovation. Except he, and the rest of us flies on the peeling wall, can only bow down before her in abject awe. Davis’s narcotic tone is so finely tuned and offhandedly delicate, you get a contact high from being in the same room with her.
There were probably a hundred women before Judy Davis who played some variation of this screen archetype, and there have probably been just as many since. None that I’ve seen ever nailed it so thoroughly, broke through the gauze and cant into something so undeniable—maybe because she took the DNA of her myriad movie predecessors and fused it with a whole cloak-and-dagger history of bebop singers (and paramours), closeted authors, Ab-Ex painters, theater renegades, blocked poets, and possibly Kathy Acker. Never flinching a millimeter, Davis keeps this whole juggling act of existential personae grounded in the everyday and the unseen. Watching her, I am reminded over and over of a line a like-minded muse of mine once used to answer a college advisor’s question of “How do you relate to your peers?” “I,” she stated flatly, “have none.”