BY any measure, Mike Leigh has emerged as the most important English filmmaker of his generation.
From prizewinning satires like ``Bleak Moments'' and ``Meantime'' to international successes like ``High Hopes'' and ``Life Is Sweet,'' his films have earned praise around the world for their sympathetic yet tough-minded portraits of working-class British life. Feminist critics have taken a special interest in them, noting Mr. Leigh's close attention to the problems of women.
Leigh's working methods are as unusual as the subjects of his stories. He works closely with his cast, developing themes and situations through extended improvisations before the cameras roll. Although the credits may say ``Written and Directed by Mike Leigh,'' each of his films is the result of joint exploration.
Leigh's career hit another high point at the Cannes Film Festival last May, where he was honored as best director for ``Naked,'' the story of an abrasive and sometimes violent young man named Johnny who barges through a working-class London neighborhood having aggressive encounters with friends, acquaintances, and strangers. David Thewlis, who plays Johnny, also won the Cannes award for best actor.
Developed through Leigh's improvisatory techniques, the film sparked controversy at Cannes with its searing depiction of physical and psychological torment inflicted on female characters. Many critics defended the movie, however, pointing out that the brutal behavior it depicts is never justified or romanticized.
Mr. Thewlis is the first to agree that the character he plays is ``abhorrent'' in many respects. ``But we didn't put anything in the film to be titillating for the sake of it,'' he told me at Cannes, where we had several conversations. ``We brought a sense of responsibility to everything we did, and fortunately, women seem to understand why they're represented in the film as they are.
``We're not in the business of misogyny or sensationalism,'' he continued with emphasis. ``The scenes of violence in the film are there to make a comment about the society we live in - the inequality between the sexes, the races, the classes. It's all there for a reason.''
Asked about the film's abrasive qualities, Leigh responds in a similar way. ``Life is abrasive for a lot of people,'' he told me in an interview, ``and there's no getting round it. I think a function of art - and the cinema not least - is to confront these things.... I'm absolutely committed as a filmmaker to be entertaining and to amuse; but I am also concerned to confront, as I did in `Life Is Sweet' and other films.''
Leigh and Thewlis both acknowledge that Johnny is an extremely bright and educated young man as well as a nasty and dysfunctional one. Thewlis says it was a major challenge to blend the character's loathsome and laudable qualities into a single characterization.
``I've worked with Mike before in less substantial parts,'' he told me. ``But this was such a complex and multifaceted character -
such an intelligent and bitter character - that it was difficult to improvise with such speed and vocabulary and articulateness. I remember my brain being on fire, raging with ideas, because I also researched an enormous amount.
``It was a process of putting an awful lot of learning together and coming up with the philosophy and attitude of the character - who became indignant and arrogant, with a sense of superiority for being more informed and enlightened than anyone around him.... And that's how I felt at the time. I felt I could confound and out-argue anybody.''
Like many elements of the film, Johnny's intelligence is stressed not to make him attractive, but to make a serious point. ``I know university graduates who have no prospects,'' Leigh says of England, where unemployment is a persistent problem. ``They're a generation of people who have been displaced.... I think more people are very intelligent than the [powerful individuals] who run the world realize. But for a lot of those people, it's wasted. They have the luggage of intelligence and education, and nowhere to use it.''
Under such circumstances, Leigh continues, people turn to vapid and materialistic pursuits to distract themselves.
``[In the film] Johnny says people have had the universe explained to them, and now they're bored,'' Leigh says. ``As long as something bleeps and flashes at them, that's all they want. I feel disgusted at all that.... I hope in some way the film approximates this tension between the spiritual and the material.... We privileged people have this extraordinary capacity to convince ourselves that our lives - the momentary business of mankind, like the Cannes Film Festival - is incredibly important. I felt it was time to raise this in the context of the fact that what occupies most people is where their next meal is coming from!''
With its mixture of sociological horror and intellectual humor, Leigh's movie could be a hard sell when it arrives in American theaters (courtesy of Fine Line Pictures, its US distributor) after more appearances at film festivals. Leigh doesn't think it will prove too daunting for general audiences, though.
``In a way, the references are incidental,'' he says, speaking of the wide range of learning that Johnny displays. ``They will resonate with people for whom they have meaning, but unlike Peter Greenaway or someone like that, I don't make films to be decoded by intellectuals. I am not a manufacturer of esoteric formulas. I am an emotional and intuitive filmmaker.''