The score upon which reality is written: Henry and June (1990), and the chaos of bohemian life


There are 66 ways in which to make love, so says the matron of an all-female erotic house in Philip Kaufman’s Henry and June (1990). Based on the 1986 book, Henry and June: From A Journal of Love: the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin (1931–1932), taken from the unpublished material of Nin’s diaries, the film illuminates only one of the many intimate and exploratory liaisons of author Anaïs Nin’s life. The film follows Nin (Maria de Medeiros) and her husband Hugo (a surprisingly and unnervingly sexual Richard E. Grant, who insists on calling Nin ‘pussywillow’) as they become embroiled in an ultimately catastrophic ménage-trois (or quatre) with author Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and his sensual and vividly erotic wife, June (Uma Thurman). As I am soon off to France, I thought it apt to revisit some French-inspired films that follow the romanticised Bohemian life in Paris.

The marvel of the film is the portrayal of jealousy, and it is felt less for the sharing of partners than it is for the sharing of sexual knowledge. The line ‘I want to show you things’ is uttered on numerous occasions and by different people- Nin, Henry, and June. Exploring the intricate vastness of sex is an exploration of the complexity of the world. The characters want to be taught things, they want to share the same experiences, have sex to fuel experience and have experience to fuel writing. Nin, in particular, aspires to embody elements of Henry and June, wanting to know precisely the worlds they have lived in and know intimately. As such there is a greater desire for knowledge and truth than for sex itself. Anyone who claims the film is purely about sex is mistaken.  

As with all films that explore the joie de vivre of the French, sex and gender inevitably intermingle. Ultimately, Nin becomes obsessed more with June than with any other characters, attempting to isolate her love for June outside of her love for Hugo and Henry. This is manifested in Nin’s critique of Henry’s writing of June, like his lovemaking and understanding of sex. She tells him he writes only like a man, he writes caricatures, and thus that he does not have a sound comprehension of women. Like La Maman et La Putain, men are seen as further disconnected from sex than women, as is seen when Nin begins fantasising about sex with June after she has gone back to New York.  June, too, observes Henry’s limitations in conveying truth in writing and life: ‘You described her wrong, Henry. You’re always making things so ugly.’ June’s distress at Henry’s inability to portray her truthfully in his work provides the flaws and fractures in their relationship. June desires to be understood: ‘I don’t want worship’, she tells Anaïs, ‘I want understanding.’ She also wants Henry to be Dostoyevsky, while he struggles to be as necessary to writing as D.H. Lawrence. 

Fred Ward and Uma Thurman as Henry and June Miller

 On a great level the limits of a man are central and integral themes to the piece; Nin asks, ‘What truths will you tell me, what lies?’ June is adept at lying, untrustworthy. Yet this is precisely her strength, her ability to, as Nin later articulates ‘conceal the truth.’ Nin wants men to make love like women, as is seen when she tells a sex performer to stop pretending to have sex like a man. A scene juxtaposing Henry and Nin’s love making with Hugo’s straight-forward, uptight daily life, adds the needed comic boost the film, as does Kevin Spacey’s out of luck Osborn, who is convinced his ideas have been stolen by Henry. The Epicurean/Bohemian lifestyle is brilliantly portrayed in the hedonistic behaviour of the characters; the smoking, the drinking, the eating, and of course, the sex. As Nin explains to Henry, ‘I have only three desires now: to eat, to sleep, and…’

Anaïs’s writing is injected into the story, with June reading the draft of House of Incest (1936), providing criticism and telling Anaïs she expected her writing to be ‘more real’, much to Anaïs’s disappointment. Egos and identities are compromised, as the film is more about one’s failures and inability to capture truth and moments in literature. Things get acidic and ugly when the main threesome, Anaïs, June and Henry, break down over Henry’s publishing deal, and June’s possessive, jealous nature, and her growing hatred of men: ‘Violence, I hate your violence. Men.’

Thurman is great as June, unhinged, jealous, tempestuous, temperamental, with terrifically mad, ‘harlot’ eyes (though the real June Miller was admittedly less attractive than Thurman’s character). June criticises Anaïs for using her: ‘You just want experience. You’re a writer.’ De Medeiros, however, I found weak and frustrating as an actor the first time I saw the film. Perhaps my dislike for her stems from having seen her first in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), in which she played the role of insufferable Fabien. Having seen Henry and June in my teens after reading Nin’s Delta of Venus, the similarities in poetic exertion of her other conquests are readily apparent, the highly romanticised nature of sex frequent in both the film adaptation and Venus, particularly in her segment The Basque and Bijou. However, the highly charged sexual nature of the writing can become overwhelming. While the inherent complexities are intriguing to follow in many of her works as well as in the film, it is hard to take all the sorrow seriously once it begins to suffocate the viewer. At many times the heartache is, of course, justified, when other times it is overpowering. The sorrowful writer and lover is pure Paris, but this cliché is exercised often and can become tiring. Nonetheless, Kaufman makes good work of this story, one that, as the credits inform us, was not to be shared until after each member of the group had died. Unfortunately, Kaufman’s talent, I am told, was absent during the recent television film Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012), which was directed by Kaufman and starred Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, and Clive Owen as Hemingway.

 

Bohemianism is often a much coveted and romanticised lifestyle. While Nin’s work captures the idealised sexuality of this genre, other, rarer works offer compelling and intriguing insights into the Boho life. Gold By Gold (1925) by Herbert S. Gorman, New York Nights (1941) by Alexander E. Louhi and Portrait of the Artist’s Children by Edward Charles (1935) are but a few rare examples of Bohemianism in literature, as opposed to Hemingway’s highly romanticised A Moveable Feast (1964). A compendium of Bohemian books has been compiled by Abebooks at http://www.abebooks.com/books/alternative-lifestyle-artistic-greenwich-soho/bohemian-books.shtml , featuring works set in Greenwich Village in New York, Paris and London, and including Henry Miller’s own Quiet Days in Clinchy (1956).  

Henry Miller’s ‘Quiet Days in Clinchy’ (1956)

 

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6 responses to “The score upon which reality is written: Henry and June (1990), and the chaos of bohemian life

  1. No matter what the critics say about Kaufman’s “Hemingway and Gellhorn” (and they often deride his films because they have an offbeat rhythm, as in his adaptation of Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and his debunking of the myth of American outlaw Jesse James as a 19th century Robin Hood in “The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid”) he remains one of my favorite film directors ever, hands-down. Kaufman on an off day is far more remarkable to me than, say, Quentin Tarantino on his best day. I cannot wait to see the film when it hits DVD.

  2. Thanks for the Memories, as Hope used to say. Jacobs reblogged this article and I followed his link; glad I did. I followed you link and found books I’ve been searching for. I hope the flick makes it to our town.

  3. Mack, “Henry and June” is not a new movie, in fact it’s been out and available on video for many years now.

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