Henry And June (1990)

dir. Philip Kaufman

starring: Fred Ward, Uma Thurman

genre: Drama


Henry and June is known to be based on a portion of the "unexpurgated" diary of Anais Nin written between 1931 and 1934, which in 1986 was published as Henry and June. But it is also seasoned with Henry Miller's autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer -- a frank and lively account of an American artist's adventures in Paris during the same years. For many writers and artists -- including myself -- there is an interest that boarders on obsession about the bohemian expatriates who left American soil in order to find their voices in a free-living and -loving European milieu. From across the Atlantic these writers arrived in waves, the most well-known of them being Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound in the 1910's, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in the 1920's, and, that intensely individualistic and rebellious spirit, Henry Miller in 1930.

Although the film is titled Henry and June, it could easily have been called Henry and Anais. It portrays the love triangle that developed between Anais Nin, Henry Miller, and his wife June. However, the story also delves into the beginnings of an artistic friendship between Henry Miller and Anais Nin that would last throughout their long lives.

When Miller first arrives at the elegantly bourgeois, home of Anais and her sweet, mild-mannered banker husband, Hugo, we learn that she is struggling to complete her first book on noted novelist D.H. Lawrence and that Henry is working on a sexually explicit book which he can't decide should be called "I Sing the Equator" or "Tropic of Cancer." We also learn that Anais is erotically adventurous and is looking for the kind of fulfillment that the soon-to-be cuckolded Hugo cannot provide. Thus, two strands of common interest: sex and art, intertwine a virile Henry and a craving Anais. Eventually, a third will be Henry's wife, June.

The volcanic release of Anais and Henry's literary and sexual energy produced some of the most highly regarded fiction written during this fecund milieu of Paris. And Henry and June allows us to be privy to their unfolding. We see how, through a mutual respect, encouragement, and artistic camaraderie, these two writers develop and sustain a practice of writing. As a child Anais began writing in her journals as a means of logging her experiences and emotional longings for a father who had abandoned her. As a woman her daily accounting of facts and feelings had continued, but now she was prime for developing her writing into new forms.

Anais and Henry met each other at a crucial point in their personal and professional lives. The film is about the attraction of two hungry minds in search of artistic, intellectual, and sexual liberation. The characters recognize in each other a co-conspirator and kindred spirit. Essentially, Henry and June provides a visually lush and intellectually stimulating account of two writers who lived through a revolutionary creative period that spawned a variety of cultural -isms, especially surrealism, which had infatuated artistic, intellectual, and psychological sensibilities. Henry's financial struggles are accurately depicted as are his and Anais's internal creative wrestlings and uncertainties about the quality of their written work. After their friendship began Anais (and Hugo) afforded Henry economic sustenance -- including a typewriter -- and even paid for the original French publication of Tropic of Cancer.

We see Henry, in his cockroach-infested garrett on the the Left bank that he shares with an assortment of bohemian guests, writing throughout the various stages of both the sun's and moon's rising and setting. The wall he faces as he sits at his typewriter is covered with notes to himself about the novel he is writing. An ashtray overflows with cigarette butts as clouds of smoke circle around him like ethereal muses. But we also see the life he lived in atmospheric Paris cafes, cinemas, and on city streets. His picaresque friends -- pickpockets, magicians, circus performers, contortionists, prostitutes, a lawyer, writers, painters, gypsies, and the happy-go-lucky photographer, Brassai, setting up some of his most recognizable tableaux of the demimonde -- flit around him like the characters that will celebrate and memorialize them in Tropic of Cancer.

For Henry (in his early forties) and Anais (in her late twenties) there was no best time of day to write, nor a need to set daily writing goals, nor have a writing schedule. In Henry and June we see artists who are consumed by their work. We see them writing in and out of bed, at all hours of the day and night. And reading each other's manuscripts with the same fervor that they eat the delicious souffles and pot-au-feu served up to them. Their passion for writing is contagious.

We are fortunate to have this visually bringing to life of images that had heretofore only been fantasized while reading about them in the novels of Henry Miller and the inexhaustible diaries of Anais Nin -- who seldom had an unrecorded experience. It is impossible to imagine a film being made from these books when they were first published partly because for decades the books themselves were banned in the United States and England. Henry and June stirred me to revisit the original writings on which it was based. And aside from creating the fantasy to time travel back to 1930's Paris, this movie imbued me with the desire to go to my desk and put my own words on paper. And for a writer, that is a film worth watching.

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