Nearly 60 years after Tropic of Cancer was published, Henry Miller is still being banned — only this time on video. If you frequent Blockbuster Video stores, you won’t be able to rent Henry & June, director Philip Kaufman’s controversial dramatization of the affair between expatriate American writer Miller and French diarist Anaïs Nin. The largest video retailer in the country has opted not to carry the title, even though Henry & June is the first film to carry the NC-17 rating created to distinguish explicit fare with serious intentions from sheer pornography. Decreeing that the new rating is an X by any other letter, Blockbuster has chosen a blanket ban of all NC-17 releases instead of taking it on a film-by-film basis.
It’s a position mirrored by one of the central themes of Henry & June itself. Miller fled the U.S. because he felt its lingering puritanism smothered his creativity, and he found in 1930s Paris an unfettered sensuality that matched his neo-Rabelaisian literary aims. The story is — or should have been — an example of American energy invigorating European liberalism to reach a new plateau of full-bodied living.
Unfortunately, Kaufman’s film is lifeless. Despite acres of flesh, Henry & June is certainly not a ”dirty movie” — renters hoping for a steamy screening experience with their significant others are advised to look elsewhere. This is an art-house movie, all right: It’s all pretty surfaces and precious conceits. At its best Henry & June suggests the headiness of Left Bank life, but mostly it forgoes the adrenaline rush of Miller’s work in favor of superbly shot Masterpiece Theatre posturing.
It’s exactly that luxuriously erotic look, Henry & June’s main strength in the theater, that gets lost on home video. The wide-screen photography was composed with meticulous care, but this clumsy pan-and-scan video transfer often leaves members of the cast cropped out of the TV picture. It’s even more confusing when the film switches to ”letterboxing” (masking the picture with horizontal black borders to retain the full wide-screen effect) in a brief subtitled sequence. Moreover, Kaufman’s subdued color scheme-smoky cobalt blues, Renoiresque reds-becomes a murky wash on video’s limited palette. The effect is like looking at a muted tapestry with sunglasses on.
With its visual pleasure diminished, Henry & June’s plot seems to slow to a crawl. The movie follows Miller’s (Fred Ward) involvement with Nin (Maria de Medeiros) from the time he arrives in Paris to the 1934 publication of Tropic of Cancer. He was a rough Brooklynite seeking inspiration in Bohemian squalor; she was the wife of a staid banker (Richard E. Grant) content to live out her fantasies in a diary that no one saw. By exploring her sexuality with Miller, Nin was to find new courage as both writer and woman.
If that sounds like the plot of Emmanuelle, it is. Henry & June doesn’t raise the artistic stakes until June (Uma Thurman) comes in. Miller’s American wife, June Smith, was his first muse and first subject: a free-living lowlife who subsidized her husband’s work through various sugar daddies and who expected to be turned into Art in return. Of course June fascinated Miller — she embodied the life-style he spent years putting into words. She apparently obsessed Nin as well, both sexually and as an object lesson in extreme behavior. But Anaïs and June didn’t consummate their attraction (according to this movie, at least), so Henry & June is about a mental ménage a trois that never quite turned physical. Initially the strongest of the three, June is written right out of Henry and Anaïs’ life.
Her predicament remains compelling because Thurman’s astonishing performance blows through Kaufman’s pretensions like a gale in a museum. Growlingly profane, proudly cheap, Thurman’s June is a self-mocking Brooklyn Venus; as slow as this movie plays on video, it jumps to life whenever she appears.
Other than Thurman, though, Henry & June is heavy going. Fred Ward is a great down-and-dirty actor, but his Miller is all externals: a battered hat, a Noo Yawk accent, the top of his head shaved bald so that he looks like a phallus with feet. He gives a studied, careful performance — not the way to play such an outsize man.
On the other hand, how can any actor breathe life into lines like ”June appeared like an angel. I offered her a fool’s fate”? Unlike Kaufman’s skillful adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his script for Henry & June mistakes good literature for credible screen dialogue. Worse, he seems more intent on cultural cross-referencing — waving names like Bunuel and Artaud as if they were flash cards — than exploring what makes his characters tick.
So we’re left with a paradox — a remote film about sexual abandon. The joke’s on Blockbuster, which really has nothing to fear from Henry & June except the disappointment of customers expecting good drama. The chain’s decision not to stock this movie, whatever its worth, is a sign of willful ignorance. The real tragedy is that Kaufman’s film doesn’t begin to suggest the rich, all-embracing sensuality of Henry Miller’s writing. Perhaps he knew that if Henry & June were truly faithful to Miller’s work, it might never have been released in the first place. C-