Top critical review
on 15 April 2016
I haven't read either Henry Miller or Anais Nin - the writers of erotic lit celebrated in this film. So I'm in no position to judge how well their characterisation by directer Phillip Kaufman and his co-writer wife Rose actually is. Frankly, the actual literary back-story is irrelevant anyway in judging this film on it's own merits. I found the on-screen characters and their story pretty uncompelling. Hard to see what's interesting about these self-involved people with their pretensions to existential insight.
Technically, the film's a well made, polished production. The central performances are good with the exception of Richard E. Grant playing Hugo, Anais Nin's husband. He's got such a distinctive acting style that, unless well cast, he stands out like a sore thingey. Which is the case here.
The story centres upon the relationship between Nin, Miller and Miller's wife June played with admirable commitment by Maria de Medeiros, Fred Ward Uma Thurman respectively. It's basically seen from Nin's perspective as she explores her sexuality by embarking a bi-sexual relationship with the Millers. By the end of the film she seems to believe she has matured into womanhood.
Trouble is, I couldn't give a damn. She's a sexy enough bint all right, but I wasn't smitten by her character. Or her desire.
More engaging I thought, was the notion that the two writers were basically exploiting the vamp June as a life experience upon which to draw as artistic material for their novels. But that wasn't examined in anything other than superficial terms.The voyeuristic theme is placed centre-stage, the film being chocked with mirror images, projections, masques and other references suggesting voyeurism, role-playing and doubling. Unfortunately, as cinematic voyeur, at no point could I engage empathetically with either of the writers. In fact, I couldn't get involved enough in their screen dramas to care for any of these characters.
As for erotic content --well I guess that's highly subjective but this is certainly no masterpiece (as claimed on the packaging). There's insufficient depth or subtlety to it. We follow the sensuality-obsessed characters in a delirious stream of episodic erotic encounters the tone of which goes for lush vampy passion (approximating the popular mode of the period) but which comes-off more often than not as hammy theatricals. Laden with some pretty crap symbolism (a pot boils over at a climactic moment, a bread roll enters a husband's mouth as his wife gets screwed upstairs by his pal etc.) and many a pretentious line of dialogue.
Basically what we have here is a commercial cinematic exercise in period style; a romantic envisioning of bohemian Paris of the 30's jazzed-up with lashings of arty erotica. It's a very attractive milieu to focus upon and, if done well, a sure-fire draw for me, certainly. But the approach here lays every coffee-table book cliche on us. Even Brassai makes an appearance. The visuals are a lush stream of quotations from cinema, photography and modern literature as if Kaufman's drunk on research. Aesthetically, it might be a mall-girl's dream, but as a seriously ambitious art film celebrating the realm of the senses (which this plainly is), it's rather over-egged.
If you want a genuinely engrossing erotic charge in recent mainstream cinema, my pick for a decent yardstick by which to judge this attempt would be Fur, Director Steven Shainberg's masterly film homage to photographer Diane Arbus, superbly written by Erin Cressida Wilson. That, and Shainberg's earlier film Secretary, exemplify truly engrossing eroticism possible in film storytelling.
By comparison, the onscreen antics of Henry and June amount to shallow stylistic posturing with nothing much to say. Not terrible, but too low a spark to ignite desire.