Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June is a long 2 hours and 16 minutes. Not interminable, like his Unbearable Lightness of Being, but, as with that one, it’s not everyone’s cup of java. Kaufman’s detractors might claim he brews decaf and they wouldn’t be stretching it. Detested Unbearable, what with its phony European pace and cold eroticism, and Henry & June is deliberately paced too, and its sex is just this side of a wide-eyed yawn. But with a cast physically matched to the seedy characters, it holds an abnormal interest which grows, albeit for those who like Henry Miller (Fred Ward) as both author and person, for those who find his relationship with his wife June Edith Smith (Uma Thurman) intriguing because, despite having been with her for only seven years, he spent what seems a lifetime obsessed with her; she’s the enigmatic star of several of his novels. Based on French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin’s diaries, the movie is narrated by Anaïs (Maria de Medeiros), who finds herself suffering a similar case of bedevilment over June as well as Henry, crediting them with awakening her sexually.
It’s Anaïs who captures June: “a startlingly white face, burning black eyes...a huntress profile...nervous, like someone with a high fever...Her role alone preoccupies her. She invents drama in which she always stars...She is an actress every moment. By end...I felt as Henry did, fascinated with the face and body which promise so much, but hating her invented self which hides the true one.” Out of this description comes Uma Thurman’s portrayal as the consummate terror of expatriate Paris of the 30s: liar, whore, contagious with perversity. Hitting all the presumably unattainable notes as only a master could, she’s mesmerizingly vile. Ward’s Henry is faithful to how Miller wrote about himself: a charming, remorseless vagabond living off the kindness of others, the hard-on who came to dinner and fucked your wife and guests and you loved him for it. When Ward removes his hat, he has Henry’s bald head but loses the inguinal appeal; when the hat’s back on, head for the hills, ladies. Takes a while before getting into Maria de Medeiros: there’s something distant about her tiny frame and flattened hair—she’s like one of those prescient, scrawny cats you come across in an alley and sense it already knows you. But she and the viewer grow together too—we weld as one as she engages in her close encounters of the seedy kind.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.