Philip Kaufman’s 1990 Henry & June is such a beautiful production that it’s a shame that it comes so close to being something special before becoming bogged down in a conventional melodrama that simplifies what were a very complicated series of relationships.
The film takes place in 1930’s Paris where half-Catalan, half-Danish author and diarist Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros) is just begun to explore her sexuality though her diaries and novels, such as House of Incest. She soon meets the roguish and worldly Henry Miller (Fred Ward), who has come to Paris to finish Tropic of Cancer. Although at first Nin is both repelled and fascinated by Miller, it soon becomes clear that the two are soul mates as Nin sees in Miller the kind of sexual and artistic liberation she has only dreamed about with her loving but dull banker hubby (Richard E. Grant). Into this unstable mix comes Miller’s actress-wife June (Uma Thurman) who ignites Nin’s sleeping bisexuality in a way that forces Nin to face true sexual liberation as she tries to balance affairs between the two while helping Miller get his novel published.
It’s a brave film full of eroticism, and the sex scenes, particularly the femme-on-femme ones, are risky for an American film. Yet it’s during the scenes between Anais and June that one begins to understand the kind of fiery and passionate sexuality that fueled Nin’s breathlessly erotic prose.
Miller doesn’t fare as well. When Miller is first introduced to Nin, she is told that “Henry writes about fucking.” While that is somewhat true, little of what makes Miller’s prose so wonderful is given much explanation. We get some scenes of insight. For example, in a funny and knowing scene Miller takes a blue pencil to Nin’s manuscript, leading to some critical truths about both writers’ styles. Mostly, however, Kaufman seems preoccupied with getting all the details of Parisian BoHo life in the ’30s just right, and that he does well indeed â€“ we get the cafés and the lesbian bars, the muted brown tones of the boudoirs, and the Delaunay paintings on the café walls. We get Miller teaching Nin to say “fuck you, Jack” at an outraged patron screaming protest at a screening of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, June and Anais playing footsie watching Mäedchen in Uniform and Miller comparing himself to Antonin Artaud in Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (there is also a recreation of the famous cunnilingus scene in the Heddy Lamarr film Ecstasy that makes little sense in that it is supposed to feature June).
Lovely stuff, indeed, but one wishes that more of what made Nin, and particularly Miller, tick as writers was here. As it stands, Kaufman has turned the story into a fairly simplistic rite of passage for Anais Nin. The acting is fine. Ward is an excellent Henry Miller for the most part, and Thurman looks positively carnal as June, but the film belongs to the Portuguese actress Medeiros, whose wide-eyed sensuality breaks through Kaufman’s tendency towards melodrama (Medeiros did pop up again in Pulp Fiction, which also featured Thurman).