The empowered eroticism of Anaïs Nin courses through the veins of Henry & June
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Film director Philip Kaufman came under some criticism for bringing the film Henry & June to the big screen after his enormous successes with films such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff, The Outlaw Josey Wales (screenwriter) Raiders of the Lost Ark (screenwriter) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Of all the criticisms from critics, the most consistent regarded making a film about writer Henry Miller from the point of view of Anaïs Nin. Never mind that Nin’s book is titled Henry & June, or that the film was a profound labor of love for an (at the time) under-recognised female artist who created a truly beautiful work of art out of her relationship with her lover Miller (something Miller did himself at the same time about his wife); it was annoying that the cool, straightforward masculine voice of Henry Miller was engulfed in all that feminine watery flounce that embarrassingly appropriated the talents of the writer into the existence of his muse. For up until Kaufman’s film, Anaïs Nin was more famous for being Henry Miller’s muse, one of his first publishers and a benefactor of sorts. It is easily argued that the faithful adaptation of the book into the film has assisted in the awareness of Nin and her as yet under-developed critical attention.
There is little critical analysis of Anaïs Nin, but it would not be difficult to argue her influence on women and on female writers far exceeds the reach of Henry Miller, and all the beat writers combined. The rise of erotic romance owes a great deal of its success to Nin’s profound ability to take the feminine mystique and empower it into self-expression. As a feminist, Nin was deeply aware of the cage femininity provided women, and within its bounds she rallied against it, using its tropes as a voice for female assertion. She never apologized for imposing it on her life as a form of narcissism and indulgent constant self-creation. She was a brilliant woman, remarkably under-recognized, whose life was a profound commitment to a female phrase.
Under-recognized, that is, by almost everyone except Philip and Rose Kaufman. Ask any woman between the ages of 30 and 40 how she heard about Anaïs Nin, and her answer will either be from the film Henry & June or Jewel’s “Morning Song”. I’m not sure how women discover her today, but I do know (from being a reader and writer of high quality women’s erotica) that she is the quintessential influence for the thousands and thousands of books published by women for women, and a cornerstone muse for one of the few rapidly growing branches of publication in the world. But it was back in 1990 that the Kaufmans decided to take a chance – after successfully adapting Tom Wolfe and Milan Kundera – on adapting a lesser-known female writer. Cleverly, Philip Kaufman worked with his wife, Rose, on Henry & June, on the diary that was posthumously published at the express wish of the writer once all the real-life people involved had died and could no longer be hurt by the book’s often scandalous events.
This notion of innocence, of seeing a writer lauded by the world through the eyes of another who writes about seeing him vulnerable and childish, to the purity June extracts through her filthy experiences, to the innocence at the heart of Nin’s transgressions is a key theme of Kaufman’s, who claims to have seen in Anaïs Nin and her interpretation of June every woman, just as Nin sees every man in Henry and her husband Hugo. Surely what the Kaufmans tapped into when they decided to adapt this controversial diary (hidden from the world until all humans mentioned had died, over 50 years later) was the same experience of feminine universality so many women experience upon reading Anaïs Nin. She embraced the tropes of femininity honestly, as an actor does a mask or a costume (she called dressing each morning “costuming”) and wore her womanly ways as a theatrical role. She turned her life as a female artist constrained by lack of opportunity (but even more debilitating, a lack of respect and creative understanding) into the work of art itself. “I betray men because men are treacherous,” was one of my favorite sayings of hers as I was starting to write. The treachery and innocence that cohabits all our hearts was one of Nin’s obsession and it is a key to the film interpretation the Kaufmans bring to the screen.
However, most remarkable of all is the adherence to the diary by the Kaufmans in their script. Most of the dialogue in the film is in the book, lifted lovingly and carefully by a well-chosen cast who remain passionately devoted to what Nin was trying to say in her diaries. Henry & June remains by far my favorite Kaufman film, and has become a secret passion for many female artists, primarily because of its passionate loyalty to its source material.
It is fair to say that Nin took to examine and refuse the notions of male heterosexual sex as inevitably rapacious and its natural corollary, that heterosexual females are therefore inevitably passive and constant sexual victims, but rather devoted her life’s work to the sexual freedom of women without falling victim to patriarchal categorization. Her constant cry was that it is possible to play with these categories and subvert them without the inevitability of falling into a position of supine passivity toward them. This is a woman who wrote erotica about a wife whose husband secretly laces her drink with Spanish fly, mocks her into leaving the house when it has no effect, only to find it has a placebo effect when she sits with a woman in a cinema for whom she experiences sexual desire. In the end she decides to continue as “normal”, keeping her sexual desire from her husband.
The story is a direct response to a micro-level patriarchal relationship, but other male representations of power and institution throughout the stories are subverted, including a male who derives sexual pleasure from the female gaze, a longing far more common than discussed, that upends the power of patriarchal assumptions of feminine passivity. Kaufman retains all the difficulties of Nin’s use of sexuality in all its forms (she has got to be the ultimate anti-biological determinist), informing the film with the feminine identity she asserts on sexual matters. Note the voice in the following passage from Artists and Models (Nin 2000, p. 41): “I felt desperate with desire to be a woman, to plunge into living. Why was I enslaved by this need of being in love first? Where would my life begin? I would enter each studio expecting a miracle which did not take place. It seemed to me that a great current was passing all around me and that I was left out.” The Kaufmans are remarkably careful to keep the current passing from Nin out to the world, not interpreting her, but revealing her and bringing her to a real life.
We see this adherence to Nin’s sexuality in the DNA of the film itself. Henry & June is one of the most controversial films ever made because it was the first to be classified in the new and revised NC-17 rating by the MPAA (due to an explicit lesbian scene featuring oral sex), a rating designed to distinguish erotic and serious adult films from pure hardcore X-rated pornography. It had the second highest box-office gross of all-time for an NC-17 film ($11.6 million), about half of the #1 film of all time, Showgirls (1995) at $20.3 million. For awhile, it was banned in South Africa. The film was controversial for six particular scenes (details can be found here) that transgressed the perceived norms of sexual congress and dared to challenge certain truths about feminine sexuality. Perhaps of all the respect and professional courtesies the Kaufmans afforded Anaïs Nin, these last might be the ones for which she would be most grateful. Henry & June challenged the film industry and the viewer around topics of female perception, alternate versions of artistic masculinity, heterosexuality, bisexuality and the feminine gaze, all areas Anaïs Nin devoted a life to challenging through her literature.
Biopics are notorious for being white-washed and anemic versions of a half-hearted truth, often more sycophantic than artistically confident. However in Henry & June we find a film that not only is beautifully made in its own right, but passionately continues the political and sexual assertions of its source material with artistic, and philosophical integrity.
Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus – Feminine Identity Through Pleasure – A Mini Analysis. Angela Meyer. (Link)
Felber, L 1995, ‘The three faces of June: Anais Nin’s appropriation of feminine writing’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 309-324, (online JSTOR).
Horrocks, R 1997, An introduction to the study of sexuality, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills. Nin, A 2000, Delta of Venus, Penguin Classics, London.