Synopsis: Philip Kaufman’s brilliant film explores the erotic life of two individuals who became 20th Century literary giants. Upon meeting American author Henry Miller (Fred Ward) in Paris, 1931, a young writer name Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros) embarks on a voyage of self-discovery and faithfully records every experience in her diary.
In their search for new truths, Anais and Henry are tantalized by Henry’s hauntingly sensual wife, June (Uma Thurman). Henry & June is an unforgettable journey into the uncharted territory of human relationship, based on the suppressed sections of Anais Nin’s diaries.
Henry and June 8.0
eyelights: Maria de Madeiros. its smoldering sexiness.
eyesores: Uma Thurman’s performance.
“Be careful Anaïs, abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.”
‘Henry and June’ is a 1990 erotic drama based on Anaïs Nin’s memoirs, which were published in 1986 after the death of her husband (as stipulated in her contract). Starring Maria de Medeiros, Fred Ward, Richard E. Grant and Uma Thurman, it was released to some controversy as it was the first film released with an NC-17 rating. It is also the first and only Oscar-nominated NC-17 film.
I first saw ‘Henry and June’ some twenty years ago or so, obviously drawn in by its rating; I was in the mood for something titillating and decided that the rating made it a sure bet. I only remember being bored out of my mind, completely unconvinced by the relationships, and finding it rather tepid compared to, let’s say, ‘Basic Instinct‘. I was evidently rather disappointed.
I never really considered watching it again, given that it’s well over two hours: long, drawn-out boredom is of little appeal. But, given that I was doing a set of sex-related motion pictures on infidelity and polyamory, I realized that this one would fall neatly into that category. And, well, maybe it would be worth revisiting: after all, who knows how my perspective might have changed.
Boy, am I glad that I gave it a second chance!
Whereas I might have given it a rating of 3 back in the day, it’s jumped right up since. While there’s nothing to be done with some of the poor performances (more on that later), it appears that I appreciate subtlety far more these days: ‘Henry and June’ is not especially explicit, but there’s an omnipresent sensuousness that pervades everything, everybody, and almost every scene.
My impression, especially in the first hour, is that it was sexy in that slightly feverish way that first passions simmer in. You know, when you start revealing yourselves to each other in little bits and every morsel is absolutely delectable, making you crave more – all the while resisting spoiling it by going too far, choosing instead to stew in and soak up all the hormones.
Having said that, I can’t imagine anyone watching this film with their partner and making it through without missing at least a few bits of it – if not the whole last half. It’s pretty charged and it’s definitely good couples viewing; in fact, it’s likely better in that context. A lot of it is mood, moments, but there is a fair bit of visual stimulation along the way – even if it’s subtle.
There’s this one sex scene in which Anaïs’ fiery love-making translates with the film shaking, going out of focus – as though the print were caught in the projector and were about to snap. Or as though there were an earthquake. This brilliantly conveys the mood. There’s another terrific scene, early on, when Anais bites at her husband’s ear, possessed. It’s the stuff daydreams are made of.
Our story takes us back to 1931, when Anaïs is exploring her sexuality in her writing and is introduced to Henry Miller – who was then an up-and-coming author, but had not been published. Her husband, who introduced them, immediately recognizes the attraction, warning her that she falls in love with people’s minds. Little does he know that this would translate to the physical, as they start a deep love affair.
Spurred on by June, Miller’s then-spouse, to keep Henry company, she begins to spend a lot of time with him and the two develop not just mutual appreciation of their work, but emotional bonds that intermingle with intense physical attraction. Since Hugo, Nin’s husband, is frequently away for business, she has all the time in the world to indulge in these carnal desires. And she does.
Thankfully, ‘Henry and June’ doesn’t tumble into the melodrama that is so typical of these stories. I don’t know anything about any of these people, truth be told, and can’t comment on the factuality of this adaptation, but it was nice to see that most of the conflict consisted of the internal battles that Anaïs waged as she tried to understand and deal with her love for Hugo, Henry and even June.
In fact, although the picture is called ‘Henry and June’, its focus is entirely on Anaïs: she is our protagonist, our storyteller, the person through whose eyes we come to understand the complex dynamics between these four people. And she’s an interesting character: the movie made me want to finally read up about her (I’ve had a biography for years now) and explore her works.
Thankfully, Maria de Medeiros was absolutely brilliant in the role. She made Nin delicate, dreamy, but passionate and playful. I entirely believed that this woman would say and do the things that she did here. Plus which, de Medeiros is lovely to look at – I was mesmerized by her round, wide face with the large eyes. Those eyes were captivating, hungry as they were, eating up all that they gazed upon.
Fred Ward was also excellent as Henry Miller. I usually despise him with a passion, but he was terrific here, and convincing (he got into the part so entirely that he allowed himself to be bald on screen and wore contact lenses to look the part). He made of Miller a confident, arrogant, gruff, vulgar, earthy individual. I don’t know how true to life his portrayal is, but I bought into it.
Unfortunately, Uma Thurman stunk up the screen as June. Her attempts at an accent were gawdawful and her supposed seductiveness fell so flat that I would have been put off were I on the receiving end of such awkward attentions. She is lovely to look at, mostly because of her Amazonian stature, but there was little else to recommend her performance (she was good at being verbally abusive, that’s about it).
Richard E Grant was a bit better as Anaïs’ spouse, but even he wasn’t entirely convincing. In fact, in the earliest part of the picture (especially before Uma came on and ruined it for me), I just couldn’t believe how bad he was as Hugo. However, he stabilized somewhat and he had a few decent moments. But it’s clear to me that someone else would likely have been better suited for this.
However, everything else about ‘Henry and June’ is top-notch. It might pale in comparison to more modern erotica, but anyone who enjoys nuance and likes to get their brain teased more than their other senses could do worse than to see this film. Personally, I have new-found respect for the picture and regret having waited so long to see it again.
And I look forward to seeing more of Maria de Medeiros: she so completely steals this movie, that I’m curious to see what else she’s done. I will. It’s just a question of time.
Date of viewing: June 1, 2014