22 October 2011 | secondtake
Almost without plot, but brimming with mood and atmosphere...and characters
Henry & June (1990)
There is something both magical and grating about watching a group of bohemian artists have fun without you. And that's the goal here, to create (re-create) the world of early 1930s Paris where we join artists like Henry Miller (and his wife June), Anais Nin (whose writings the movie is based on), Brassai (the photographer who makes a brief entrance), and others. It actually does that pretty well, overall. Is this enough for a movie? Is the lack of plot and of a driving force to keep you in it for over two hours an issue when it's engaging to just watch? Maybe.
There's a scene were two characters go to a whorehouse to watch two women as lovers, and they, like the audience, merely watch. And watch sex, and erotic suggestions of sex, in a huge array of situations. Yes, this is intended to work not only as a view of the erotic world of these artist but to be erotic somehow on its own, and yet to avoid being pornography. It got an NC-17 and not an X on purpose.
This is the complicated and taste-driven situation we find ourselves. And so is it any good, is it a "good" movie?
Sometimes very much yes. For one thing, the woman who plays Nin, the Portuguese actress, Maria de Medeiros, is fabulous. She's complex, intriguing, and rather like the appearances we have in photographs of the real Nin. She steals the movie. Certainly the title characters are also meant to be interesting, especially Fred Ward playing Henry Miller, but I found him affected, a little like a dull Peter Falk, meant to be the gauche New Yorker in Paris and working too hard at it. June is played by Uma Thurman and her role is quite small and a bit two-dimensional compared to the others. Brassai? Played by an actor I've never heard of, Artus de Penguern, and we leave it there, even though Brassai's photographs certainly are the basis for some of the key public scenes.
This is a Paris after the Crash, when the economy isn't rosy, when some of the famous 1920s glory with Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein has rubbed off (or moved back to America). And Miller, who is a brilliant prose writer ("Tropic of Cancer" really is masterful, style and content both), is living a very low, poor, almost deliberately crude life. He sponges off of his roommate and off of Nin, who has money for everyone it seems, and love for everyone, too.
The movie's largest liberty and most disturbing, is making Nin bisexual when it's been shown pretty thoroughly that she was not. Her affairs, on screen, with several women are utter fiction, and they therefore become a kind of lesbian showmanship pandering to a male movie audience, which I think is fair enough in some contexts but a bit dishonest and self-serving here. It made me hate other aspects of the movie, too, like the use of Brassai's flash powder when the photo (shown in black and white) is clearly not shot with flash.
So you have to get back to where we started--enjoying being there, not worrying that there is no plot, but joining in, vicariously, in a loose, fun, sexually liberated underground of Paris before the Nazis put an end to even that.