Naked City

By Asa Jordan

naked-mike-leigh.jpgNaked, 1993

As Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake peels back the façade of 50’s London, so the Director’s portrait end-century capital in Naked revealed a settlement of ambiguous alienation which continues to inform our vision of the metropolis.

In Bleak Moments (1971), Mike Leigh’s first feature, we are presented with a vision of suburban alienation and a principal male character (Peter) who, to put it rather coarsely, can’t stop talking and start fucking. In Naked, more than twenty years later (1993), we are presented with a vision of urban alienation, the naked, nocturnal city, and a central male protagonist who seems to have an unquenchable thirst for both of the above functions. In my days as a cinematic autodidact, I regarded Johnny as the most fascinating and enduring male character in the history of British cinema, and Naked its most enduring film. Watching it for the first time was a visceral, watershed moment. In fact, the ‘guts’ and ‘viscera’ of the London that Johnny encounters still hold a persistent allure, still hold relevance for me nearly a decade later, particularly since I became an inhabitant of this ‘great’ city.

I remember one night in particular, in which I was awoken by a lengthy trade dispute between a young lady and her ‘financial advisor’. The darkly comic way in which their encounter lurched suddenly, unpredictably, from moments of menace to moments of tenderness and back again, as they staggered away from my window towards the everything and nothing of the night beyond my eyes and ears, was eerily reminiscent of the exit of Archie and Maggie in Naked. To walk through the anaesthetised heart of Kings Cross at a similar hour, the almost Dickensian dankness of its cobbled side streets; to ride the Silverlink from Acton to Islington, careering through the dark above the voyeuristic slideshow of numerable illuminated windows is to experience a ‘London’ like that of Naked. That is, the vision of an evocative yet enigmatic city: we will never see, hear, touch, smell, know all of it, yet we know it exists. Within us and without us, beneath us and beyond us: a coterminous space pregnant with individual memory and meaning, pregnant with the possibilities of joy and despair.

Naked is the cinematic conception of the city as enigma, an enigma whose very power is derived from the fact that it remains unexplored: it cannot exist in visual coherence and totality, either for character or for viewer. The film’s narrative is one that foregrounds the invisibility of the characters’ lives, their unseen alienation within the anti-social setting. Unarguably central to this drama is the relationship between men and women. From Johnny’s initial encounter with Sophie to his weak and weary teasing of Sandra, the film is concerned with the precarious state of relations between the sexes.

It is from this presentation of gender dynamics and on the uneasy terrain of misogyny that much of the academic and popular criticism of Naked is based. Most of this is aimed at the visual representation of women as victims, and the failure of the narrative to move towards a judgemental, or ‘moral’ conclusion. What I believe we see in Naked is a meditation on the complex psychology of rape, and its prevalent, pervasive threat to women in the lawless, ‘sightless’ city; where there is no clear delineation between concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ (a moralistic blind-spot that could be said to be representative of ‘reality’). Despite the indistinct morality of Johnny, we as audience are not complicit with his violation and abuse of women, nor do we revel in Jeremy/Sebastian’s degradation of Sophie or his tormenting of Giselle.

Such a complex terrain of relationships, with enigmatic personalities and their listless moralities, is bound to provoke negative responses from critics and viewers, for it confronts their world view, questions their perception of things and the ideological functions that they expect cinema to perform. They shouldn’t feel a strange brew of empathy and revulsion when watching Johnny. He shouldn’t be almost simultaneously loveable and loathsome; he can’t be pitied and pilloried. To have an ‘excuse’, a tragic experience, an early sexual trauma that has dramatically influenced his adult sexual behaviour, as is suggested in the film’s later stages, would be too much. People want the filmic ‘reality’ of a rapist who is evil, who is hated, who is perverted, and who is punished – not a rapist who could be their brother, their lover, their father or their son.

Unable to accommodate the painful paradox of profound loss and justice that is the film’s ending, unwilling to be haunted by the final strains of the memorable soundtrack and the last image of Johnny’s crippled ‘escape’, they rest at criticising the film for being ‘problematic’, for its ‘coruscating pessimism’. In my opinion the last lingering smile between Johnny and Louise, far from being pessimistic, is a heart-wrenching, life-reaffirming moment, one of the most wistfully beautiful exchanges between man and woman in British cinema: a flower of hope in bleak and brutal soil. Johnny is a man who has raped and been raped; a man who has been hurt and who has caused pain, stolen, cheated, lied; has loved and been loved, hated and been hated; has been ostracised and forgiven, remembered and forgotten. A man. ‘Simply’ a man.

Asa Jordan is currently studying BA(Hons)in Film Studies at the North Campus of London Metropolitan University.