Henry And June
A Film by Phillip Kaufman
Henry and June is a nearly perfect piece of movie-making. Produced, written and directed by Peter, Rose and Philip Kaufman, the family that brought The Incredible Lightness of Being to the screen, it reproduces the tone and intensity of Anais Nin's writing wonderfully.
Philip, who was writer of the screenplay and director on "The Right Stuff" in 1983, collaborated with his wife Rose on this adaptation of previously suppressed portions of Nin's diaries. These sections deal with her affair with writer Henry Miller, and her involvement with his first wife, June.
The subject of this film is the emotional and sexual interactions among a group of sensitive, creative, highly aware individuals who were exploring the boundaries of their own lives. The inclusion of nudity and overtly sexual behavior and language is never avoided, but since it grows directly from the characters and their feelings, it never seems contrived or in any way exploitative.
This film is the first to be rated "NC-17", a rating that is supposed to distinguish serious films made exclusively for a mature audience from pornographic films, with which they used to be grouped under the old X rating. No one could have imagined a better film to illustrate the difference between explicit sexual expression in service of profound themes and the exploitative nonsense of porn. It even forms a sharp contrast with the many "R" rated films whose gratuitous nudity and sexuality is scarcely connected to the plot.
The question of the connection between sexual mores and personal freedom, between emotional commitment and the expression of instinctual humanity, was one that was central to Miller's writing and his life. The changes that contact with this wild, vulgar, vital American made in Nin's life, the effect that he and June had on her, and the elemental level of her nature that she was led to confront are the subjects of the section of her diaries from which the movie is adapted.
Like Nin's own writing, the movie tells the story without judgement. The characters are neither condemned nor championed- simply presented as, to Nin's eyes, they appeared. In telling the story questions are raised which the characters must deal with, but there are no answers, no resolutions here, simply the recounting of what happened, what was said, and felt.
This is a rare occurrence in Hollywood film, where moralizing and "happy endings" (or at least endings of some sort) are considered essential. (Classic film of the Cinema Verite period of the French "new wave", such as Goddard's Breathless were among the first modern films to consider such a point of view, although it has been standard in great literature since at least the nineteenth century.)
If its well-crafted narrative structure and its honesty of approach were all there was to this movie, it might be just another interesting milestone in film-making. Happily, there is far more here. The Kaufmans have taken the diaries, adapted them into a spare yet very evocative script, and then turned that script into a consummate movie.Every element that makes movies a unique form of story-telling is utilized with the delicacy and consciousness that characterizes all great art.
The score, a rag-tag of popular music of the day and classical pieces, arises directly from the situations and actions as they occur. When Nin and her husband go out to a bistro, her underlying sexual energy is reflected by a charged rendering of The St. Louis Blues by the bistro's band. When she and Miller are making love in an upstairs bedroom and her husband unexpectedly arrives home, the distance between her two worlds is mirrored by the surrealistic accompaniment of classical music that appears from nowhere to accompany her interchange with Miller, contrasted with the absence of music that attends Hugo's mundane activities. There is no hint of the manipulative, overpowering use of music that has become so offensive in many films.
The cinematography is exquisite, each frame a carefully composed visual image. Some of the images are so breathtaking, (a sunset under a bridge in Paris, Nin waiting for Miller in front of a window) that they almost distract from the flow, but there is none of the showy self-indulgence that marks the slick but empty camera work of films like Out of Africa or Top Gun.The composition of a full screen close up of the faces of June and Nin lets us see the intimacy that is growing between them, amplifies the dialogue with a visual image that reflects the truth of what is being portrayed.
The performances are uniformly excellent. The actors avoid the obvious to portray the enormous vitality and complexity of the characters and their situation. The unresolved conflicts and subtle paradoxes of personality that are such a part of real life and so rarely portrayed in film are central here and these actors are equal to the challenge of communicating them.
Maria De Medeiros plays Nin with a remarkable combination of sensitivity and self-absorption, and great delicacy. Fred Ward is a welter of confusing contradictions as the amazing, self-invented Miller.
Uma Thurman has the most difficult task. Her character is the least clearly drawn, perhaps reflecting Nin's own inability to understand June, and her unresolved confusion about the nature of their relationship. Thurman's performance is touching and believable as this enigmatic and relatively opaque character, who, we are told at the film's end, lived out her life as a social worker in Queens.
Richard Grant is least satisfying, although excellent, as Nin's lifetime mate, Hugo. The story Nin is telling is definitely not his, but the lack of definition of his character leaves a whole dimension of the story unexplored.
My only quibble with the film was how good it all looked. In real life, princes occasionally have dirty fingernails, they stumble and sometimes their voices sound harsh. In this film Medeiros, is always an exquisite gem. Her blemishes never show. To a lesser extent this is true of all the characters and the sets. Even in Miller's poverty row bachelor apartment, there are no flies and no dirty dishes in the sink.
In part this may reflect Nin's sensibility. These are after all her memories, and she chose what to record and recall. Still, it gives an air of illusion and romance that is in contrast to the raw and primal nature of the themes of human relationship that are being treated here.
I could go on and on about this film. It is far and away the best film I have seen this year, and one of the handful of films I have ever seen that actually justify the claim that cinema is indeed an art form on a par with great music, painting or literature. Even if you don't like movies, see this one.
That's my take on it. What's yours?