Henry and June (1990): Philip Kaufman’s Disappointing Erotic Tale, First NC-17 Hollywood Movie

Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June, the intelligent but ultimately disappointing literary-erotic chronicle, is still a cause celebre, due to the fact that it was the first Hollywood movie  to be released with the punitive MPAA Rating of NC-17.

Riding high artistically in the wake of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” a movie that was  a critical if not a commercial success, Kaufman  and his wife Rose Kaufman have adapted to the screen scripted the diaries of Anais Nin, resulting in a disappointingly pretentious picture that exhibits too much of Nin’s sensibility and not enough of Henry Miller’s.

Set in Paris of the 1930s, the tale centers on a peculiar romantic triangle, headed by the American writer Henry Miller (played by the sexy actor Fred Ward), his wife June (Uma Thurman, right after “Dangerous Liaisons”), and Anais Nin (Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros).

A former taxi dancer, June supports her husband’s career from her earnings as a mistress of another man.  June encourages him to go to Paris so that he can concentrate on his métier (New York is too distracting), and she can give full expression to her bisexual orientation.

The subject seems suitable for Kaufman, who may have been attracted by the opportunity to explore the dynamics of modern, open marriages and the nature of bohemian lifestyle.  June, Henry’s mistress and muse, is also married, to Hugo (Richard E. Grant), a bland middle-class husband, who can’t fulfill her desires.

The movie is nice to look at due to vivid and authentic recreation of the City of Lights by ace lenser Philip Rousselot (Oscar-nominated) and production designer Guy-Claude Francois.  But, with a running time of 136 minutes, the slow-moving film overextends his welcome by at least half an hour.

While explicit, the erotic scenes are staged in an academic way, failing to generate the kind of heat and excitement that mark Kaufman’s less explicit but raunchier encounters in his 1988’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

The NC-17 has been a failure, pleasing perhaps the censors and most conservative viewers, but ailing to encourage mature viewers to see mature movies; for one things, you can’t advertise NC-17 movies in mainstream newspapers, such as the N.Y. Times.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot.

Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context:

The winner of the Cinematography Oscar was Dean Semler for Kevin Costner’s New Age Western, “Dances With Wolves,” which swept most of the Oscars in 1990.

The ace French lenser Rousselot had also been nominated for John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” in 1987, and won the Oscar in 1992 for Robert Redford’s “A River Runs Through It.”


Henry Miller (Frank Ward)

June Miller (Uma Thurman)

Anais Nin (Maria de Medeiros)

Hugo (Richard E. Grant)

Osborn (Kevin Spacey)

Eduardo (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey)

Jack (Bruce Meyers)

Editor-publisher (Jean-Louis Bunuel)

Spanish dance teacher (Feodor Atkine)

Emilia (Sylvie Huguel)