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On this date in 1990 a new chapter opened in the history of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system. Henry and June was the first film to receive the NC-17 rating, a designation that was intended to allow films with adult subject matter to exist in the theatrical marketplace. That endeavor was not entirely successful — when Steve McQueen’s Shame hit in 2011, Fox Searchlight found itself struggling with the stigma attached to the rating — and The Hollywood Reporter’s original review of Henry and June gives some insight into why that may have come to pass.
Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June will be remembered as the first feature released with the new NC-17 rating. There is a danger, though, that this is all it’ll be remembered for.
While visually lush and inviting, this insular, self-absorbed film is more a violation than a celebration of the lives of two of literatures foremost sensualists, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin.
Little of Miller’s boisterous, anarchic spirit makes its way into this film. Nor is its superficial handling of Nin’s theme of a woman’s self-realization likely to satisfy her admirers.
Following Kaufman’s impressive cinematic adaptations of such difficult-to-film works as The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June is a major disappointment.
Kaufman’s name and the ratings controversy may attract decent attendance during the film’s platformed opening this weekend in limited markets. But word will quickly circulate that this is neither an art film nor a “hot” sex film.
Its greatest potential may be in video, which would unfortunately diminish its greatest attribute — Philippe Rousselot’s lovely lighting and color scheme.
The script by Kaufman and his collaborator-wife Rose is based on the 1986 publication of Nin’s diaries, which told of her long-secret, passionate affair with Miller. Nin met Miller in Paris in 1931 and their mutual recognition that they were soul mates was nearly instantaneous.
Each was married to another. Yet, as in their writing, the two embarked on an affair that explored the limits of personal freedom and sensuality. Neither intended to hurt others. Indeed, Nin took great pains to protect her husband, Hugo, a banker who later became an avant-garde filmmaker. To her mind, she still loved him dearly.
Miller and Nin also shared an obsession with Miller’s lovely, enigmatic second wife, June. Both were to write thousands of words in an attempt to distill her essence.
This then is the arena for Kaufman’s film: a cool, almost black-and-white Paris during the Depression, populated by magicians, artists, whores and stuffed shirts, where a couple searches for erotic pleasure while seeking new realms in literature.
What this film does best is evoke a bohemian milieu in which writing truly matters and where literate and sex are linked. Autobiography was essential to both Miller and Nin’s art. They made love in order to write. They tore into life in order to celebrate their adventures in words.
But the affair’s drama is muted, ticked out in all kinds of mannered poses. The women’s relationship in particular suffers from Kaufman’s penchant for pictorialism.
Each of the two actresses has one basic pose. After that, they are at a loss to bring any emotional depth to their roles.
As Nin, Maria de Medeiros peers prettily out of her downcast face, a wan smile covering all situations. Frankly, she looks more simple-minded than sensual. As June, the Brooklyn taxi dancer who became Miller’s wife, Uma Thurman makes do with a pouty, sultry stare directly into the camera lens.
Fred Ward’s Henry Miller is a livelier creation. For one of the few times in movies, we feel a real writer’s presence. His passion for his work is undeniable. His joy in life’s emotional messiness comes very close to capturing the giddy rush of Miller’s poetic language.
(The dialogue contains great gobs from Nin’s and Miller’s boks. So perhaps the film’s greatest gift will be to send viewers back to the original sources.)
Richard E. Grant’s Hugo is too shadowy a figure. Nothing here suggests the complexity of a businessman who becomes an artist.
The many sex scenes have been so beautifully lighted and composed that much of the passion drains away. The film goes delicately coy where raw vitality is desperately needed. Only in this repressive political climate would such gentle eroticism earn anything more restrictive than an R.
The presence of three editors — Vivien Hillgrove, William Scharf, Dede Allen — failed to persuade Kaufman to hurry things along. Henry and June moves through time at a leisurely, hypnotic pace. It says quite a lot about Kaufman’s filmmaking skills that the film doesn’t feel long.
Guy-Claude Francois’ elegant production design — even for the rougher sections of 1931 Paris — and Rousselot’s breathtaking cinematography create a pleasing spectacle for the eye.
The Kaufmans and sound designer Alan Splet are responsible for the atmospheric music, selected from original recordings and other source material. —Kirk Honeycutt
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