Saturday, June 11, 2011


Philip Kaufman, 1990
Starring: Maria de Medeiros, Uma Thurman, Richard E. Grant, Kevin Spacey

Written, directed and produced by Philip Kaufman, Henry & June is based on the diaries of Anais Nin, specifically the section about her life in Paris during the early '30s with writer Henry Miller and his wife June. Though she was happily married to her husband Hugo, Nin carried on an intense, long lasting affair with Miller that has become quite historically famous since the posthumous publication of her diaries. The sections about her relationship with Miller were published in an abridged volume known as Henry and June.

The film mostly follows the plot of this book. While in Paris with Hugo in '31, the restless Nin has just published her first book, an analysis of the work of D.H. Lawrence, and is looking for more out of life. She meets the American writer Henry Miller, who has been sent to Paris by his wife, June, to continue writing and further his contacts. Though they initially connect as writers, Miller is soon responsible for Nin's sexual awakening. They begin a passionate relationship under her husband's nose. When June briefly arrives in town, Nin falls in love with her as everyone seems to, but June's destructiveness eventually takes a toll on Miller and Nin's relationship, which inevitably crumbles.

This is a relatively faithful adaptation of Nin's book. It skims over certain plot elements, like Nin's other affairs during this period and her important relationship with her psychiatrist, but I understand this is necessary for the film's already lengthy time limit. There's a good chance it will be confusing for those who haven't read the book when Kaufman glosses over these other relationships, but overall it is easy to follow. My biggest complaint is that it changes the ending of the book. Nin and Miller's relationship faded with time, but I can see how producers would be unhappy with the lack of drama in that ending.

I was anxious about seeing this film. I love Anais Nin and I love Henry Miller. I also love literary erotica and films that explore the subject, so I had high expectations. My biggest complaint is that the film was rated NC-17, but I have no idea why. It simply isn't that sexual or that graphic. I think most of the problem is that it's an American film. While today there certainly more sexually explorative works (think Short Bus), in 1990 the only place you could see explicit sex in the US was in porn. While Nin was a writer of graphic erotica and Miller's books were frequently banned on obscenity charges, I think the film could have pushed the limits of erotica a lot further. Henry Miller, for one, probably would have been bored by it.

The casting was successful. Maria de Medeiros, a Portugese actress many of you will likely remember from her role as Butch's French girlfriend in Pulp Fiction, stars as Anais Nin. Her performance and casting is probably the strongest, which is fortunate because she's the focus of the film. She looks remarkably like Nin as well. Fred Ward looks weird with a bald cap and is kind of a bland Miller. I can't really imagine who I would want to play Miller as he's such a complex character, both in Nin's journals and as a real man. I think it would be a challenge to find someone with Miller's blend of intelligence and highly charged erotic energy, but who is not particularly handsome.

Though Uma Thurman is well cast as the beautiful, deceitful June, her voice/accent made me find her about 50% less sexually appealing than June is supposed to be. They had her deepen her already low-pitched voice and add an unfortunate Brooklyn accent. Richard E. Grant, one of my favorite actors, was also skewered with a terrible American accent. Shame.

I like Philip Kaufman. He makes the mistake of writing his own films a lot of the time, but he's taken some daring chances. After doing the successful remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he directed The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Quills. None of these are immediately accessible films -- and often have a heavy emphasis on erotica -- but I like his style. He's slated to direct an HBO film about the relationship between Hemingway and Martha Gellhom.

Over all I was disappointed in Henry & June. As I already said, I was bored by the erotic elements. The plot was messy and unfocused, though there are certainly worse faults to have in a production. The set and costumes were lovely and '30s Paris looks beautiful. I only recommend it if you're interested in either of the writers, though I would definitely recommend any of their books over this film. There's a bare bones DVD from Universal, but go with a rental first.

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