In 'Naked Lunch,' a writer working as an exterminator in New York imagines a scaly, taloned beast sitting at his typewriter, which can transform itself into a squishy insect that speaks, makes demands and sprouts sex organs. In Kafka, a writer working as an insurance clerk in Prague imagines deformed creatures roaming the shadowy streets as part of a body-snatching plot hatched by a mad scientist in an ominous castle. After a mind-numbing holiday season in which The Prince of Tides has passed for experimental cinema, it's invigorating to find the creative process examined in two unapologetically demanding movies crafted with an eye to more than the box office.
William Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch has been rattling literary cages since it was published at the end of the repressive Fifties. Though nothing in David Cronenberg's free-form, $15 million film is as jolting as the poetically eroticized violence of the book, there's plenty to scare off the uninitiated, including a giant centipede that rapes and devours a gay boy in a bird cage. A crash course in the pertinent works of Burroughs (Exterminator!, Junky, Queer) and Cronenberg (The Brood, Scanners, The Fly) couldn't hurt, but the film stands on its own metaphors.
Cronenberg whose screenplay for the film won the 1991 New York Film Critics Award has turned Burroughs's densely fragmented novel into a pungently comic and inventive spellbinder about the act of writing, incorporating Burroughs's life in the mix. William Lee, played with hollow-eyed intensity by Peter Weller (Robocop), is the Burroughs stand-in. At his exterminator job, Lee kills insects with the same yellow powder that his druggie wife, Joan (a vividly decadent Judy Davis the new dark lady of cinema), injects into her breast. When Lee accidentally shoots Joan in a William Tell stunt (Burroughs's wife died under similar circumstances), he escapes to Interzone, modeled on Tangier, where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch. Interzone is a drug-induced-nightmare world of spies and junkies that shapes Lee's fantasies as he tries to write himself out of his guilt.
In Interzone, Lee is drawn to Kiki (Joseph Scorsiani), a gay hustler, and Yves (the ever-creepy Julian Sands), a Swiss debauchee. The drug of choice is the ejaculation of Mugwumps emaciated creatures (ringers for the real Burroughs) with head protrusions that emit a milky fluid when sucked. The distribution of the drug involves the evil Dr. Benway (an over-the-top Roy Scheider) and the housekeeper Fadela (Monique Mercure, who outhams Scheider). Fadela works for Tom Frost (Ian Holm) and his wife, Joan (also played by Davis) expatriate writers loosely based on Paul and Jane Bowles. When Lee and Joan write seductive words to each other on a typewriter, the machine turns into a quivering sex blob that covers their bodies in ooze.
You can debate the film's shower of symbols representing everything from Lee's blocked creativity to his repressed homosexuality. But there's no debating the film's hallucinatory brilliance. Cronenberg is a master, fusing style and substance with the invaluable aid of Peter Suschitzky's camera work, Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis's creature designs and Howard Shore's score, which soars in the alto-sax solos of Ornette Coleman. Even at its most enigmatic, Cronenberg's big dare pays off in a burst of imagination that is literally out of this world.
'Kafka' finds Steven Soderbergh following up his character-driven debut, sex, lies, and videotape, with an exercise in style that, unfortunately, displays more energy than inspiration. Still, the look of the film shot in black and white by Walt Lloyd, until a climactic switch to color is stunning. The scene is Prague, circa 1919, and the play of light and shadow on the cobblestone streets is a film buff's cornucopia of expressionistic allusions from F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu and Fritz Lang's M to Carol Reed's Third Man.
Jeremy Irons plays Kafka, the insurance drone who slaves by day watched by his supervisor (Alec Guinness) and the office spy (Joel Grey) and writes feverishly at night in his garret. His stories are too weird for publication (one concerns a man who turns into a cockroach). Despite the real-life parallels, Soderbergh and writer Lem Dobbs (The Hard Way) aren't attempting a biography; their Kafka like Cronenberg's William Lee is a writer set loose in his own dark dreams.
Kafka pursues his lonely art until the disappearance of a co-worker involves him in a conspiracy that leads to a castle where the evil Dr. Murnau (Ian Holm) performs Frankenstein-like experiments. Given the film's potential, it's crushing to watch it dwindle down to a conventional horror film (for the record, Dobbs says his script was "mangled"). Soderbergh also squanders a first-rate cast, including Armin Mueller-Stahl as a cunning cop. Where Cronenberg succeeds in conveying the interior mind, Soderbergh stays disappointingly on the surface.