Early on in Philip Kaufman’s languorous, baffling Henry & June, the feisty American-expatriate writer Henry Miller meets the impish Parisian writer Anais Nin and proceeds to tell her a thing or two about D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence, says Miller, didn’t really understand sex; his trouble was that he made too big a deal out of it. True or false, that’s a strange statement to be coming from the hero of this movie — for if there has ever been a film that made too big a deal out of sex, it’s Henry & June. The picture treats eroticism as a form of higher education. Watching it, you could easily forget that one of the main reasons people fall into bed with each other is to enjoy themselves.
I stress this point because I think it’s one from which Miller himself never strayed too far. Miller, the scabrous, visionary low-life of American literature, was captivated by sensuality in its rawest forms. He was a romantic of sorts, though for him love was shot through with anger and rooted in the primacy of physical experience.
Henry & June, based on the unexpurgated version of Nin’s diary that was first published in 1986, focuses on four characters in ’30s Paris: Miller (Fred Ward), who was living as a professional bum and working on the manuscript of his exhilaratingly scuzzy, tossed-off masterpiece Tropic of Cancer; his wife, June Uma Thurman), the dance-hall girl who became his muse and scapegoat; Nin (Maria de Medeiros), the well-bred Franco-Spanish bourgeoise who thirsted for sensuality, danger, liberation; and Nin’s husband, Hugo (Richard E. Grant), a mild, eager-to-please bannker to whom Nin, for all her wilder yearnings, remained devoted.
In the movie, Anaïs falls for both Henry and June. With Henry, her fellow writer, it’s a meeting of the minds (and bodies). She becomes his student in passion, and he, in turn, is aroused by the fantasy of violating her aristocratic refinement. Yet the one with whom Anais is truly in love is June. After many fits and starts, Henry & June becomes another feminist-awakening movie — the story of a lesbian attraction that, for Anaïs, is really a dawning of the self.
Kaufman’s last film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), was an enthralling triumph, one of the sexiest and most haunting movies ever made about the differences between lust and love. (The movie worked because it had plenty of both.) In Henry & June, Kaufman, trying to deepen the erotic explorations of Unbearable Lightness, ends up with a triangle movie that’s watchable but also arty and rather stilted. The biggest disappointment of the film is that, after all the ratings brouhaha (see story on page 23), it’s not very sexy; there’s too much highfalutin baggage attached to the various entanglements, naked and otherwise. More than that, the characters — at least Miller — are already so vivid in many readers’ imaginations that they never quite come alive on screen.
Ward, sporting a shaved dome, overdoes Miller’s Brooklyn-carny-barker growl and plays him as a kind of smiling, macho Mr. Life Force — a walking erection. What he doesn’t suggest, except in one or two scenes, is Miller’s despair, his intellectual sensitivity; when he has to read one of Nin’s manuscripts and bark out a line like, ”You tell the truth with such delicacy,” it’s pure camp. Maria de Medeiros has the petite physique and flirtatious scamp’s features to play Nin, but as a character she’s weightless. Nin, a daring (if minor) writer, had a tense, exploratory mind that’s scarcely in evidence here.
The most convincing moments belong to Uma ”Come Hither” Thurman. Physically speaking, she has no place in this movie: Henry Miller’s entire, liberating notion of sexuality centered on being obsessed with women who don’t look like Uma Thurman. But she gives June, the Brooklyn goddess who longed to be idealized in her husband’s writing, a touching awkwardness. She’s the one character you don’t feel you need Cliffs Notes for. B-