Monday, March 10, 2008

A Look Back at HENRY & JUNE

Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) finds literary merit in Henry Miller's wife June (Uma Thurman) in HENRY AND JUNE.

Last night, for the first time in almost eighteen years, I watched Philip Kaufman's HENRY & JUNE (1990), a film I reviewed at that time for VIDEO WATCHDOG #5 -- one hundred and thirty two issues ago. Looking back at my review, which praised the film while faintly damning it, I feel a bit embarrassed; our reviews were shorter in those days, but even so, it seems to have been written in particular haste, without much empathy for the director's goals in telling the story of the 1931 Paris encounters of Dutch/Spanish diarist Anaïs Nin, American aspiring novelist Henry Miller, and his troubled wife June. I can't believe I failed to note a cameo by Juan-Luís Buñuel, the director of that fine film LEONOR (1975) and the son of the gentleman whose classic surrealist short UN CHIEN ANDALOU is shown in excerpt.
Since 1974's THE WHITE DAWN, where his mature directorial career effectively began, Philip Kaufman's work has achieved a remarkable fusion of technological skill, elegance, and emotion. To say it in shorthand, he's like Kubrick -- but with feelings. His INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) remains the only sequel to hold its own against Don Siegel's 1955 original; THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1988) are two of the only post-1960s American films worthy of the epithet "epic," not only in length but in achieving a fulsome body of emotional and historic content; and QUILLS (2000) is a remarkably good, underrated addition to the filmography of the Marquis de Sade.
HENRY & JUNE was made directly after the superior UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, which surely also contributed to its lukewarm reception. My old review particularly takes it to task for earning its NC-17 rating too coyly; it was the first film to carry this "adult" rating and expectations, shall we say, were higher... and lower. Its restraint, which doesn't seem any more unbridled today, still seems a modest betrayal of the on-the-table candor of its literary sources, but Kaufman's first responsibility (I can now better appreciate) was to Kaufman. More explicit carnality would probably have worked against the film's eroticism -- or rather its mystique, which is what Kaufman works to a lather in place of eroticism. It smoulders, and it does so exquisitely.
Aside from finding a boyish Kevin Spacey in the cast, the biggest surprise to come from revisiting the picture is the enduring power of Uma Thurman's performance, of startling maturity considering her age (19-20) at the time, and quite possibly still the finest acting she's done to date. She's alternately alluring and repulsive, but the black-and-white footage of her, in the movie-within-the-movie, would have driven Fritz Lang mad with desire. Fred Ward (carried over from Kaufman's previous film THE RIGHT STUFF) and the enchanting Maria de Medeiros are ideally cast as Miller and Nin. In contrast with Thurman, these are two wonderful actors who have not had the glorious Hollywood careers they deserved (perhaps because they prefer more meaningful work -- witness Ward's collaboration with Robbe-Grillet in THE BLUE VILLA), which makes it all the more poignant to see them embodying these historical personages with such precision and seeming ease while Phillippe Rousselot's camera promotes them both so magnificently as movie stars. Ward followed HENRY & JUNE with arguably his finest work in George Armitage's modern cult classic MIAMI BLUES, but it was not until 1994 that de Medeiros made another American film, as Bruce Willis' oral pleasure-loving girlfriend in PULP FICTION.
What I failed to grasp about the film the first time around is that the Miller/Nin relationship, as depicted here, is essentially mutually parasitic, a tango between American and European litterateurs thrown so off-balance by the other's exoticism that they have to rut in order to regain their equilibrium. He gets her nose out of books and into the crotch-seam of life; she teaches him an appreciation for flamenco and tarantella; he teaches her how to cuss like a sailor. They offer each others' talent the opportunity to extend its vista by a conquered continent. In short, they are both in each others' pants to get moistened grist for their literary mills. Likewise, what June stands to obtain from this ménage a trois is the drama queen's pleasure of wishing to be the focus of a book she hasn't the gift to write herself. Once she decides that Henry's realistic prose hasn't done her proudly, she turns sapphically to Anaïs, the prose poetess, her next best shot at the Dostoevskian immortality she envisions as the only acceptable reward for a life of pain. One of the film's faults is that it demurs from authenticating or discrediting or even detailing the causes of that proposed pain.
The ultimate poignancy of all this ambitious trysting around the typewriter is that the books of Nin or Miller -- both of whom were widely read in the late 1950s, '60s and early '70s -- have since fallen out of fashion. It was Nin's crusading that got Miller's earthily philosophic joi du vivre into print in the first place, and ironically, it became her affiliation with him that made her own hour of fame possible -- moreso through her extensively edited and incomplete DIARIES than through often inscrutable "novels" like HOUSE OF INCEST and LADDERS TO FIRE. The true story of their relationship remained locked within her personal diaries until after the death of her devoted husband Hugo, played so well in the movie by the ever-dependable Richard E. Grant.
HENRY & JUNE has not had a DVD release in nearly a decade, not since Universal's non-anamorphic 1.66:1 presentation of 1999. The old disc is still in print; it zooms up acceptably well but its susceptibility to upconversion is limited. The digital 2.0 mix sounds more stunted to my ears than the warmer, richer analog mix on the VHS screener I originally reviewed. All these shortcomings are fixable now, and long overdue for an overhaul, suggesting HENRY & JUNE as a title worthy of remastering by Universal -- preferably with substantial supplementary input.

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