Maria de Medeiros
Richard E. Grant
2 Hrs., 10 Mins.
Henry & June December 26, 2019
enry & June (1990) is a lush, almost balmy romantic drama. It’s a good thing it works, since one of its protagonists is Anaïs Nin, the pioneering eroticist, and since it’s also based on one of her books — 1986’s autobiographical Henry & June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin. If the film didn’t bring to the screen the heat Nin conjured in her writing, it’d feel off — like a kitten trying to pass as a
cat. We know we’re in competent hands almost from the outset, though: Henry & June has been co-written and directed by Philip Kaufman, the filmmaker behind the confidently sexual, cerebral adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Henry & June is the lesser film: it doesn’t have the same intellectual verve of the former. But carried over is the consistent and frequently overpowering heat — a feat, I think, since Henry & June is otherwise too long at 130 minutes and flirts with stuffiness.
The film is about the real-life (and destructive) love triangle between Nin, struggling writer Henry Miller (Fred Ward), and his mercurial young wife, June (Uma Thurman). We’re meant to believe both in the sexual electricity between these people and how it was forceful enough to lead them to either ruin or a personal breakthrough. Believe I did. The movie is set in 1931 Paris, where Anaïs (played by Maria de Medeiros) is happily, albeit boringly, married to future filmmaker Hugo Guiler (Richard E. Grant). Anaïs is a writer whose work for the most part is limited to florid but authoritatively written diary entries. Early in the movie, she tells her husband that she wishes she had more “experience” — a nebulous but certainly understandable want for a writer hungry to lock down her voice.
Anaïs meets Henry and June during the film’s first act, at a get-together with mutual friends. The couple — bohemian and sexually unabashed — seems to fully represent the “experience” Anaïs is looking for. The couple’s lifestyle is so tumultuous, and so different from her fairly repetitious one, that she’s immediately physically and intellectually attracted to them. Anaïs eventually embarks on affairs with both people. She’s allured by the tough-talking but plainly vulnerable June’s recklessness, and by the ferocious passion of Henry and especially his writing. The conclusion Henry & June reaches tells us that this triangle was prismatically life-changing. It provided a fount of inspiration for Nin and Mr. Miller in their writing: Mr. Miller shortly afterward published his first novel, 1934’s notorious Tropic of Cancer, and Nin, too, got a major headstart. But it also destroyed the marriage of the Millers and especially left Mrs. Miller to languish in the aftermath.
Henry & June isn’t that good a movie — by the middle act it particularly starts to wilt, its purposeful languidness starting to deaden in its assertiveness. There are only so many cycles of the fucking-followed-by-creative-epiphany process we can take before monotony mushrooms. But the feature gets right the partially cataclysmic sexual attraction between these disparate people — a breakthrough in the screenwriting that’s supported by the way Medeiros, Ward, and Thurman all have a natural and radiant sensuality to them. (The Keane-eyed and oval-headed Medeiros looks like the subject of a fleshly portrait come to life.) When the well-cast actors are together there comes a sort of explosion.
The indulgences of these characters are, we know, amoral — what about their marital commitments? — but there’s a headiness in the air that gives the wrongness a sinful rightness. It also helps that the film has been sumptuously shot by Phillippe Rousselot. Warmly lit, with a glow that renders any shiny and/or soft surface jewel-like, Rousselt’s cinematography nearly sweats, exquisitely supplementing the hot-and-heaviness of the narrative and all its skin-baring deviations. Henry & June perhaps problematically romanticizes the calamitous aftereffects of its three-way affair. And viewers with an aversion to the pointedly ahistorical will probably want to stay away and instead look into the book it’s based on. Still, the way Kaufman fuses sexual and creative headway is thrillingly and deftly pulled off. The movie is an elegant and I think undersung continuation of what the director did with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, just maybe with less urgency. B