Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Frank Review of "Henry & June" (1990)

The Short Version? 1930s Writers in Lust.
What Is It? Erotic Drama.
Who Is In It? Maria de Medeiros, Fred Ward, Uma Thurman & Kevin Spacey.
Should I See It? Yes.

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There are a lot of movies about writers, but very few about writing, and they almost invariably alienate their audience. On her eponymous 1996 album, Sheryl Crow had a wonderful song on the subject called "The Book," about a woman responding to having found her relationship with a writer plundered for material. "...I didn't know, by giving my hand, that I would be written down, sliced around, passed down, among strangers hands." The ironic part being that in response, she writes a song about her victimization hurling recriminations that will be distributed internationally on CD.

Quite simply, there is a distant, voyeuristic, predatory quality to any artist, but most especially writers, who have the space and attention to detail that allows them to most thoroughly violate a confidence and vivisect a spirit. That's why most writers in movies are simply characters in a writing with a glamorous occupation, and films that accurately portray their true nature, like Henry & June, are usually ignored or vilified.

In 1930, Anaïs Nin was a French housewife with literary aspirations, shopping fruitlessly an examination of the work of D. H. Lawrence. She was supported by her banker husband Hugo, a steadfast fellow too bland and well hung to comfort her adventurous spirit and slight frame. She instead found herself drawn to Henry Miller, an unpublished and rather coarse American struggling with his first major manuscript. These are kindred spirits: opportunistic, parasitic, self-important daydreamers compelled to enshrine their preoccupation with sexuality-- extra value placed on deviancy. I may sound judgmental, as they were also explorers facing an uphill climb in expressing their perceived worlds, or as Nin once wrote, "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." My point is that it's easy to criticize these people and this work from an objective stance, but despite (or perhaps because of) its autobiographical source, you have to appreciate how wholly subjective the presentation is meant to be. This is not, God help us, one of those dry, literal, expository bioflicks Hollywood loves to churn out, but a film that drifts between diary entries, melodrama, sensual fantasy, and metatextual examination.

Henry & June was the first film to receive an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, a largely forgotten designation meant to separate mature but explicitly adult film works from X-rated pornography. Some might approach this film as art house spank material or couples-friendly soft core, and those individuals will likely leave it frustrated. While gorgeously shot and in no way averse to sexual situations, the movie is constantly preoccupied with sexuality on an intellectual level. Even when the activity, whether in action or dialogue, involves couples, there's still a masturbatory quality to every interaction. Both Henry and June are far to deep inside their own heads for there to be any true intimacy between them, with the exception of recognizing in each other the same narcissistic drive. Little wonder Nin spent most of her life with Hugo, but was truly defined by a brief affair and lifelong friendship with Miller. Both would serve as pioneers of a sexual revolution not to come for another thirty years.

The film pivots on Maria de Medeiros' revelatory turn as Nin. Her beauty and presence are sublime, making me wish she'd made more films in my sphere, her most well known English language appearance being a supporting role in Pulp Fiction. The actress is in the unenviable position of taking a promiscuous, secretive, passively abusive figure and insuring she remains identifiable and even "innocent" throughout, and meets the challenge seemingly effortlessly.

Fred Ward is delightful if sometimes too cartoonish as Miller, selling lines as fantastic as "I wanna fuck ya, an' teach ya things. Humiliate ya a little."
A pre-fame Kevin Spacey embodies the flaky, unaccomplished, paranoid, envious bohemian. His every scene is worth at least a smirk, as he chews the scenery. Richard E. Grant serves the movie's role for him as clueless wet blanket Hugo, but he's the most pointed caricature. This is especially true when you take into account the real Hugo, Hugh Parker Guiler, became a surrealist engraver and experimental filmmaker in midlife until his death.

Uma Thurman performs heavy lifting of her own, including the thickest Brooklyn accent on Earth. Thurman plays June Miller, a lifelong muse to both Anaïs and Henry, and makes the interesting choice of making her overblown and facile in her feminine mystique. I've read reviews that questioned how such an obvious figure could be inspirational, but I think they miss the point. Thurman as June is like a fictional construct brought to life, and I think in context the writers are fascinated by this woman who so clearly wants to be personified by their writings, who is so defined, and yet neither is able to satisfy June's self-image in prose.

Director Philip Kaufman co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Rose, and not having read the source material, I can't speak to their fidelity to Nin's writing. I can say that the film is intelligent, beautiful, and an absolute must for sensualists and those interested in writing of any kind. At two and a quarter hours, it's probably much too long to hold the interest of a general audience, but a wise investment for fellow seekers.

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