Pros: Ward, Grant, Thurman, Carnival and lit-crit scenes
Cons: Nin's self-mythification and its embodiment by Maria de Medeiros
Philip Kaufman (1936-), like Bob Rafelson (1933-) and Nicolas Roeg (1928-), is an independent maker of films for and about adults, who has, like them, made some stupefyingly bad movies (for Kaufman, many would say “Quills” or “Twisted,” for me the 1972 “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid”, for Rafelson: Head, The King of Marvin Gardens; for Roeg: Insignificance.
Kaufman’s commercial and critical successes have been
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The Wanderers (1979)
The Right Stuff (1983)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
I thought the last of these inferior to Milan Kundera’s novel, but a creditable attempt.
I read somewhere that Anaïs Nin encouraged Kaufman to make his first film, “Goldstein” (1964). Everything Nin (1903-77) wrote was primarily about herself, and though I have not read her book Henry & June [Miller], a better title for Kaufman’s 1990 movie adaptation would have been “Anaïs Branches Out.” Unfortunately, the Portuguese actress playing Nin, Maria de Medeiros, is a thoroughly unengaging actress with little screen presence.
At the start of the movie (in a Paris suburb chateau, ca. 1931) she is rebelling against going to a party of bankers with her husband, Hugo Guiler (Richard E. Grant), exclaiming that she wants to spend her time with people who are Alive. Soon the amorous couple (Guiler and Nin) are introduced (by Kevin Spacey in an early and not especially impressive performance) to unpublished Brooklyn-bred writer Henry Miller (1891-1980, enacted by Fred Ward, who played “Gus” Grissom in Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff”) who is living a precarious, cadging existence in Paris with his wife June (Uma Thurman in her first starring role), who is more lesbian than not.
The little-experienced Anaïs has sexual affairs with both of them. Her husband is not seen for about an hour, after taking Anaïs to a bordello where women may be hired to be watched having sex with each other, and/or to join them. This scene is the only one that approaches being graphic, though nothing but breasts are shown in the movie. These and the postcards (including two Hokusai woodcuts) Nin found apparently scared the censors into the first NC-17 rating (after the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” won a best picture Oscar).
There are many sex scenes, but they are shot as demurely as Nin before the Millers was.
There are scenes of writing longhand, typing, and reading manuscripts, but writing is not very photogenic and, as with many, many other movies about writers, the writing that makes the character of interest is invisible (“Howl” is a recent exception, btw). My favorite scene begins with Nin and Miller reading pages written by the other and dripping praise. Then Miller starts crossing things out in Nin’s manuscript and tells her it is too abstract and taunting her at not being able to take criticism. It seems a very male domination-establishing scene… But Nin lays down a critique of Miller’s writing and he is less able to take criticism than she was.
I guess the point of showing Nin’s dabbling in infidelity with both a man and a woman is sexual liberation
Philippe Rousselot’s Oscar-nominated cinematography (tending to golden) was good, though not IMHO special (especially compared to what he did on “A River Runs Through It” and “The Emerald Forest”).
Fred Ward’s bald egotist is probably closer to what Henry Miller was like than Miller’s self-mythification. The movie’s Nin is more trapped in Nin’s self-mythification (though I have not read Henry and June: From A Journal of Love: the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin (1931–1932)), I read a number of her (expurgated) diaries back when they were in vogue with some women of my acquaintance). I thought that Thurman and Grant were good (following re-viewing Rafelson’s “Mountains of the Moon,” I watched “Henry & June” in part because he was in it (and in part because I feel that I should examine Kaufman’s oeuvre).
I was bored by the first hour-plus of the movie, but the woman-on-woman sex show and the Carnival sequence got my attention.
I don’t think that either Miller or Nin is much read any more; indeed, that their audience had already shrunk by 1990. Those who have read their self-mythifications don’t need the illustration, and I think that most others would be puzzled about why the movie was made (but, perhaps, I underestimate the lure of woman-on-woman sex scenes for a general audience?)
©2011, Stephen O. Murray
Kaufman has filmed another movie (for HBO to air in May 2012) about another pair of writers, Ernest Hemingway and (his third wife) Martha Gellhorn, played by Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman.
I also epined (finding more to admire than to like) about Kaufman's 1974 “White Dawn”.