Thursday, March 20, 2014

Henry and June


I have returned from the studio after a hectic first day of filming on Fillies, the musical version of Equus, in which I star as Martina Dysart, an extraordinary psychiatrist. The day was ghastly - a compazine suppository kept me from vomiting all over the limo from sheer nerves, but it also did something to my equilibrium and during my big tap solo as the dream horse, I kept falling off those dang six inch plastic tap hooves and landing on my prosthetic mare's nose. Back to the makeup chair I'd go for repair and then more of the same. The other dancers didn’t help. The backup chorines seem to have been hired from the Edward Norton school of the dance. They kept stepping all over my feet as well as my lines.

I came home to find Norman looking over the pilot script of Waiting to Inhale; it’s a new sitcom his agent wants him to consider. He would play one of four elderly gentlemen running an alternative farm on the Mendocino coast. He's going to turn it down. He finds it too lowbrow for someone of his stature and refinement. He’s suggested they contact Max Von Sydow instead. He delivered quite a lecture to me on the evils of substance abuse humor as he mixed up his Tanqueray and chocolate YooHoo. He will be working soon, however. He has accepted a personal appearance at the opening of the new June Allyson Depends Boutique at Beverly Center. He and dainty June go way back and he always helps her plug her products whenever he can.

I was exceedingly tired, what with the falls, the hours in makeup and the compazine, so I collapsed on the couch in front of the home theater and looked through the latest arrivals from Netflix. As I had been dealing with the artistic temperment all day, I selected a film about artists, temper, and between the wars fashion, Philip Kaufman's Henry and June.

Henry and June tells the story of not just a love triangle, but rather a sort of amorphus love polygon that existed between writer Henry Miller and writer/diarist Anais Nin in 1930s Paris. That Miller and Nin were friends and supported each other during that period was a well known fact in literary circles. That they had carried on a torrid love affair at the time was not known as Nin embargoed her writings about it until after the death of all the principals. As Miller and Nin were considered seminal figures in the transformation of literature from the restraints of the 19th century to the openness of the 20th, the revelation of their relationship sent shockwaves through the literary world in the late 70s and critics began to re-examine their works from the period, especially Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Nin's erotic stories, in a whole new light.

Philip Kaufman, a film maker long attracted to the power of words and adult relationships (other films being The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Quills), seized on this story and, with the help of his wife Rose, created a screenplay from Nin's writings, detailing the bohemian literary world of early 30s Paris. The central figure is Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros), the Portugese American, married to Puerto Rican banker Hugo Guiler (Richard E. Grant), and living a comfortable ex-patriate life in Paris. As a person of literary bent, she meets Henry Miller (Fred Ward), another ex-patriate American of loutish morals and undeniable talent, working on a novel inspired by his on again/off again relationship with his wife, June (Uma Thurman) and his experiences in the fleshpots of Paris, a work which will ultimately become Tropic of Cancer. Miller shares a garret with a no talent named Osborn (a young Kevin Spacey) and Nin is drawn to this bohemian world, eventually beginning a frustrating and torrid love affair with Miller and also with his unstable wife. She's so aroused that her writing changes; her relationship with her husband changes. Her sexual passions also cause her to begin another affair, this one with her cousin Eduardo (Jean-Phillipe Ecoffey). As Nin sleeps her way through the entire cast (except for Kevin Spacey, who has five-ways with hookers instead), literature is born.

The film is fatally flawed due to miscasting in the central role. Maria de Medeiros is Portugese, and looks like the young Anais Nin but she is a charisma vortex. Everytime she is on screen, all life is sucked out of the scene. As it's her story, a lot of the movie is flatter than a crepe suzette. It's not that she can't act, it's that she projects no qualities that an audience could even begin to care about so we have absolutely no interest in her experiences. I wonder what would have happened if Kaufman had cast his previous leading lady, Juliette Binoche in the role. Fred Ward actually comes off the best of the leads. This is not his usual kind of part but his he-man image actually works for him (despite the bad bald make-up job) to make Henry the earthy and pungent soul that he is. This was Uma Thurman's first major movie role. She's not bad and her good looks help her carry off the character, but she doesn't have the acting chops to carry off the complexities of June's psyche. As written, June has a borderline personality disorder at best or a frank psychosis at worst and that's tricky to pull off and still show how magnetically attractive she's supposed to be. The decision to give her an accent that's a cross between Jersey Mafia princess and Brooklyn truck driver (to emphasize her lower class origins?) also didn't help as it makes Uma look like she's auditioning to replace Mel Blanc. Richard E. Grant is fine but his role is underwritten - it's unclear what he thinks of his wife and her shenanigans. It's pretty apparent he knows but he doesn't seem to react. Kevin Spacey is quite good, but has little to do other than engage in group sex.

Kaufman plays his usual tricks to try and bring the film together. There's lots of shots in mirrors and reflections in windshields to try and show both interior and exterior states of being. He also brings a surrogate into the picture in the form of the photographer Brassai who's shown with the others making some of his famous compositions (including Madame Bijoux, used so anachronistically in Titanic). What he's doing in the film, other than to bring in the photographer's eye, beats me. The screenplay is literate, but slow going. Nothing much happens other than assorted couplings for long stretches. At two hours and ten minutes, the film could have used some judicious editing. It is visually gorgeous, however; the recreation of between the wars Paris is spectacular.

The other big flaw in the film, which helped spawn the creation of the NC-17 rating for films of serious nature with strong sexual content, is that it's not particularly erotic. There are dozens of sex scenes and the film is about the evolution of erotic literature but, because of the failure of the central character to engage, we could care less about the writhing naked bodies in dreamy soft focus with strategic lingerie. Anyone who watches this film trying to get a pornographic jolt will be sorely disappointed. The lead actresses bare their breasts occasionally and the lead actors their butts but the average Shannon Tweed Cinemax flick has a heck of a lot more nudity and erotic charge.

Henry and June was obviously a labor of love on the part of the Kaufman family. Not only did Philip direct and Rose write, but son Peter produced. It's too bad they didn't expend their considerable talents on a better group of actors to realize their vision.

The DVD contains the film in its theatrical proportions. The colors are golden throughout (I believe by directorial choice rather than a flaw in the process) and the sound is fine. There are no extras other than the usual bios and production notes.

Bald marionette. Sleight of hand tricks. Contortionist prostitutes. Grumpy serving maid. Blue painted Kevin Spacey. Gratuitous lesbian bordello scene. Fedora hats. Diaphanous lingerie. Gratuitous primitive mountain biking. Lesbian bar Charleston dancing.

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