Sunday, 26 June 2011

Reflections on Henry and June (1990)

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Maria de Medeiros as Anais Nin and Uma Thurman as June Miller in Henry and June

I would have first seen the 1990 film Henry and June as a 21-year old university student in Ottawa, Ontario. At the time, Philip Kaufman’s exploration of the romantic and literary triangle between Anais Nin, Henry Miller and his wife June and his supremely seductive depiction of 1930s Parisian bohemia seemed to me to be the ne plus ultra in decadence. The film was transformative, firing my imagination of what a creative beatnik life ideally should be. I watched it over and over again, dragging friends, and started dipping into the sexually-charged works of Miller and Nin.

This weekend I re-watched Henry and June for the first time in about two decades. Risky: would I be disillusioned? Would it be as good as I remembered? Or maybe my tastes had simply changed in the intervening twenty years (bear in mind, I once thought Siesta (1987) was a profound art movie. Hey, I was 18 when I saw it and I soon learned better). The film was notoriously sexually explicit for its time (it was the first film to receive the NC-17 rating – one step away from an X). Since then, films have become far more explicit and Henry and June’s sex scenes – while still undeniably steamy – don’t pack the same shock value they once did.

It’s also easy to roll your eyes dismissively over the long scenes of Nin and Miller having heated debates about the merits of D H Lawrence and declaiming about poetry and literature in Parisian cafes in between bouts of athletic bonking, or Nin’s breathless narration about her inner musings about liberation and promiscuity – plenty of critics did at the time, and people probably still do now. Any film that can be summarised as “one woman’s erotic awakening” threatens comparison to the cheesily softcore 1970s Emmanuelle films, and Henry and June’s tone of highbrow erotica borders on pretentious – but it’s attempting to convey ambitious, weighty ideas about art, sex and life and doing it in a very stylish way. And for me, all these years later Henry and June still casts a spell.

The film covers the years 1931-1932 (when Nin first met the Millers), and Kaufman offers a swooningly romantic evocation of 1930s Art Deco Paris: every single shot is lovingly composed and art-directed to the hilt to look like a Brassai photograph or a Tamara de Lempicka painting come to life. The soundtrack is equally redolent, marrying 1920s and 30s jazz with accordion-laced French chanson. (The key songs are "Parlez-Moi D'Amour" by Lucienne Boyer and Bing Crosby’s “I Found a Million Dollar Baby" and there is especially haunting use of Josephine Baker’s "J'ai deux amours" in a brothel scene). The combined effect is as intoxicating as an absinthe cocktail. This is clearly a personal labour of love for Kaufman, and it shows.

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Tamara de Lempicka painting

The film is about the erotic and intellectual / literary initiation of Anais Nin; the screenplay is derived from her diaries and told from her point of view. Certainly the camera is enthralled by Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros’s elfin heart-shaped face (her features are simultaneously sharp and bird-like and delicate; with her tendrils of black hair and dark almond-shaped eyes, she looks remarkably like Anias Nin). Fred Ward is charismatic and brash as literary bad boy Henry Miller - and he does a mean Popeye impersonation. But the film is utterly stolen by Uma Thurman, then only 20-years old, as Miller’s predatory and volatile bisexual wife, toxic beauty June Miller.

(This is a potentially disillusioning aside, but Nin, her diaries and Kaufman’s film shouldn’t be regarded as strictly truthful. Nin was a skilled self-mythologiser and massager of facts. Read this interview with Nin biographer Deirdre Bair on Salon.com: she blows apart some of the key aspects of the film. Much of Henry and June’s humour derives from Richard E Grant’s comic turn as Nin’s bumbling, clueless husband Hugh. In real life he was far more urbane and fully aware of Nin’s affairs. Bair also suggests Nin and June probably never actually had a sexual relationship: June was genuinely bisexual, Nin wasn’t).

Seeing it again, it’s surprising how relatively small the role of June is considering her impact. Her name may be 50% of the title, but it really is a supporting role. (Someone on imdb estimates Thurman’s screen time in Henry and June only amounts to about 25 minutes, and the film is over two hours long). Long before she properly enters the film, the characters talk about June and we see glimpses of her in flashbacks – the effect is tantalising. Her delayed arrival builds up anticipation, giving her a proper “star” introduction when she finally arrives.

And what an arrival: Nin wrote of her first encounter with June, “A startlingly white face, burning eyes ... As she came towards me from the darkness of my garden into the light of the doorway I saw for the first time the most beautiful woman on earth.” To their credit, Kaufman and Thurman nail this moment. Kauffman typically introduces June as emerging out of mist or shadows, behind screens of cigarette smoke, a nocturnal vampiric creature in shabby black velvet. When June vanishes back to the US for the movie’s whole middle section, she still haunts the film like a spectre and we (like Nin) crave her return.

As portrayed by Thurman, June exudes low-life allure and ruined glamour like luxurious perfume that’s curdled. Her inscrutability and kohl-smudged smoky eyes hint at exciting depravity. (In real life, June would have looked almost like a punk. As well as powdering her face a cadaverous chalk-y white, she typically wore lipstick in shades of either black or green. She must have looked like she was decomposing! The film shies away from this extreme). Her origins are mysterious and disreputable – complicated by the fact she’s a compulsive liar. The film hints June resorted to borderline prostitution to finance Henry Miller’s nascent writing career; certainly she was a 10 cents a dance “taxi dancer” when they first met. In an inspired and apparently true-to-life touch, June sometimes carries around an eerie male marionette like a kinky accessory. Called Count Bruga, in close-up his angry face feels German Expressionist and genuinely sinister. The imagery of June and her devilish puppet would appear to have inspired Madonna, who cavorts with a similar male “devil doll” in her "Erotica" video two years later.

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Uma Thurman as June Miller

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The real June Miller

A particular highlight: June lures Nin to a dissolute subterranean lesbian nightclub full of butch / femme couples (the butches wear men’s tuxedos with short pomaded hair; the femmes wear glittering bias-cut 30s evening gowns). June and Anais slow-dance to a sultry, blues-y instrumental rendition of the song "Moi Je M'Ennuie", one of Marlene Dietrich’s sexiest standards, performed by an all-female jazz band (the song’s suggestion of Dietrich injects a whiff of Weimar Berlin decadence). This is probably the most erotic lesbianic dancing scene since Dominque Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). June exhales huskily into Nin’s ear, “There’s so much I wanted to do with you ... I wanted to take opium with you ...” then purrs, “I’ve done the vilest things ... the foulest things. But I’ve done them superbly ...” It gave me goose bumps when I was 21. It still does now!


Shame about the murky quality of this clip, and the Chinese subtitles -- but you get the idea

(I must mention the appearance of Brigitte Lahaie in the mostly mute small role of a prostitute in the brothel scenes, who seems to mesmerise Nin because of her resemblance to June. In a dream sequence in which Nin and June make love, Lahaie appears as June’s doppelganger. Lahaie was a former actress in French porn films, and she’s certainly at ease in her nude scenes here. She makes a powerful impression in Henry and June: smouldering, almost scary, strangely androgynous and sexually voracious).

Thurman/June’s mere appearance instantly injects turbulence, tension and high drama into the film. (Especially towards the end, when the tempo begins to sag – June’s return salvages it). Tough but vulnerable and unpredictable, June is less cerebral than Miller and Nin, more emotional. When June belatedly realises Miller and Nin have been having an affair behind her back, suddenly the film feels like it has urgent emotional content, something is at stake. The final confrontation between the trio is wrenching. June is a muse to both of them, but she’s a critical one, recognising how precarious her role is, and vocal in her in disappointments. She’s the one who’s done the desperate living and taken the risks – they’re the ones who reap the kudos for writing about it. “I wanted poetry!” she wails at Miller after reading how she’s represented in his Tropic of Cancer manuscript. “I wanted Dostoevsky!” Being their inspiration leaves her unfulfilled. When Nin tries to reassure her, “I worship you!” June snaps, “I don’t want worship – I want understanding.”

(June was right to be suspicious of Miller and Nin cannibalising her life for their literary works. The film ends in 1932. After Henry and June divorced in 1934, both Miller and Nin seemed to abruptly lose interest in their shared muse, pretty much abandoning June to a squalid and despairing life ravaged by extreme poverty and mental and physical illness. When Miller encountered June for the first time in years in the 1960s, he was reportedly shocked by her deterioration. The woman praised by Nin for her "tantalizing somber beauty" was now a withered crone. June’s later years are shrouded in mystery and mostly undocumented, but they are recently beginning to come into sharper focus. Her Wikipedia page and this excellent blog fill in some of the blanks. She apparently died in 1979 aged 77).

In her exquisitely-lit, dreamy close-ups, Thurman as June can suggest a Tamara de Lempicka painting, Ingrid Thulin in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) or Warhol superstar Candy Darling at the height of her 1930s-style, Harlow-inspired glamour (not to imply Thurman looks like a drag queen, but she is Amazonian in stature and I’ve always thought she shares Darling’s sculpted bone structure) – or an escapee from a Josef von Sternberg film. Imagine Marlene Dietrich’s shady demimondaine Shanghai Lil from Shanghai Express (1932) with a tough Brooklyn accent (Thurman’s hard-boiled Depression-era Brooklyn accent as June is perfection). Thurman’s beguiling way of lowering her head and looking up through hooded half-closed eyes is pure Dietrich (in the 1940s the insolent young Lauren Bacall adopted this stance, too. When she did it, it was called “The Look”). If anyone could have played Dietrich in a biopic, based on this film, it’s Thurman. In fact the great French auteur Louis Malle was planning to make a film about the early life of Dietrich starring Thurman – but when he died in 1995, the project was abandoned.

Candy Darling
Candy Darling. I mean Uma Thurman. I mean Candy Darling

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You've got that look that leaves me weak: Uma Thurman as June Miller

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Marlene Dietrich

Henry and June captures Thurman early in her career: with the benefit of hindsight, Thurman’s subsequent filmography is decidedly patchy. It’s not Thurman’s fault, but she never quite had the opportunity to live up to the potential Henry and June suggested (and certainly she’s had plenty of roles since that have found her wanting). She’s probably best-loved for her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino (who’s been quoted as saying he sees Thurman as the Dietrich to his von Sternberg), but neither Pulp Fiction (1994) nor the Kill Bill films (2003-2004) challenged her dramatically the way June Miller did. (Funnily enough, Pulp Fiction reunites her with Maria de Medeiros, but I don’t recall them having any scenes together in it). These days she’s more regarded as a great beauty than a great actress. But while the proposed Dietrich film starring Thurman is a great cinematic “what-if”, Henry and June remains a testament to what a riveting screen presence Thurman can be.

Finally, you can watch the actual Anais Nin onscreen in glorious colour in Kenneth Anger’s hallucinatory experimental art film Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome (1954). This is just a snippet, showing the 51-year old Nin looking great in black fishnet tights, with a gilded birdcage on her head. Warning: watching this might turn you into a Satanist! (Kenneth Anger would probably like that).


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