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‘Henry & June’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 05, 1990


Phil Kaufman
Fred Ward;
Uma Thurman;
Maria de Medeiros;
Kevin Spacey;
Richard E. Grant
No one under 17 admitted

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Maybe this is premature, but these are hasty, quick-to-judge times and I've got a new word for you: Kaufmanization. It refers specifically to the work of director Philip Kaufman, whose "Henry & June" opens today. But it can also refer to anyone who follows in his stylistic footsteps.

In the case of "Henry," this means taking the real-life love triangle of writer Henry Miller, his wife June Miller and diarist/author Anais Nin, and heightening it in gorgeously picturesque terms. But at the same time, and here's where Kaufmanization becomes complete, it also means reducing the essence of the work to an incredibly smug banality. "Henry" (rather like Kaufman's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being") is as outwardly beautiful as it is inwardly counterfeit.

Of course, while you're sitting there enjoying actress Uma Thurman's comely attributes (she's June Miller), newcomer Maria de Medeiros's serene resemblance to Anais Nin or Fred Ward's adept, funny and enjoyable performance as Henry Miller, you may not be thinking in quite those terms.

You'll be watching this for the fantasy ride it is, a sort of Life magazine spread on Literary Paris! Anais the experience-hungry, sex-fascinated diarist and erotica writer romps with Henry the blustery, then-unpublished author of "Tropic of Cancer," and eccentric, troubled June careens fitfully between New York and her on-the-rocks marriage in Paris. The images (by France's superstar cameraman, Philippe Rousselot), naturally, are pristine and there's a lot of NC-17 steaminess.

That steam factor rises, as Anais becomes more fascinated with Henry and June. Of course, it's Kaufmanized: The whorehouses are cinematically smoky and friendly (Anais and Henry pay to watch); the cigarette smoke curls; bodies are covered in lace; fingers pop into the mouth; there are reflections in the goldfish bowl. Meanwhile, Anais's cuckolded husband (Richard E. Grant, in an off-the-wall casting) plucks obliviously on the guitar or bangs the bongos.

Ward and de Medeiros, whatever their historical accuracy, work tremendously well together in sheer, physical, movie-pleasure terms. He's the big, cussing literary lug. She's the luminous, sensitive appreciator, her face and performance an eerily evocative reflection of Nin.

Ward has a mischievously good time. He makes this picture better than it deserves to be. "Ay! How ya doin', bonjerrr," he says to a French acquaintance. "Aness," he says to Nin, treading all over her first name. "Meet my wife June."

As for Thurman: She may look lovely but she doesn't rise to the mythic occasion. She's supposed to be a woman who triggered thousands of pages of impassioned writing from her husband and Nin. Neither she nor the movie show why. It doesn't matter anyway. Ward and de Medeiros are having too good a time, in this extended literary fantasy, to notice.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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