In the movies, the past can be a seductive place, a lost-and-found of uncomplicated pleasures. Three new movies about lost innocence suggest that life is not as good
as it used to be. They are period dramas portraying various golden ages—of sexual awakening, wartime camaraderie and family harmony. Henry & June is an erotic tale of American writers finding free love in Paris before the Second World War. Memphis Belle is an old-fashioned adventure about American fly-boys fighting for freedom in the skies of Nazi Germany. Avalon is a postwar saga of an immigrant family devoured by the American Dream in the suburbs of Baltimore.
An excursion into a world of literary gossip and steamy sex, Henry & June is based on the autobiographical writings of compulsive diarist Anais Nin and vagabond novelist Henry Miller. Co-written and directed by American film-maker Philip Kaufman, it is a voyeur’s paradise, with more acreage of flesh than any mainstream movie since Kaufman’s previous effort, The Unbearable Lightness of Being(1988).
Setting standards for eroticism in Hollywood, it is also the first movie to be released in the United States in the new NC-17 category, which replaces the stigmatized X rating.
Like Lightness, in which a Czech doctor practises love on two women,
Henry & Junéis the tale of a triangle.
Set in the early 1930s, it focuses on the volatile affair between Nin and Miller, and their mutual infatuation with his second wife, June. At the time, Miller was writing Tropic of
Cancer— later banned for 30 years in anglophone countries. Doe-eyed Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros portrays Nin as an intrepid sexual dilettante who finds a mentor in Miller. As the novelist, Fred Ward delivers a gruff, Bogart-like caricature. And Uma Thurman, as June, delivers the movie’s one truly arresting performance.
A beguiling literary gold digger, June feels that Miller has betrayed her in his fiction. “I wanted Dostoevsky to sing my praises,” she tells him. “You make everything ugly.” With a sensual sneer and a barbed-wire Brooklyn accent, Thurman has an intoxicating presence— but she is offscreen much of the time. While her character is away, Henry and Anais cavort under the nose of Nin’s tolerant husband, Hugo (Richard E. Grant).
Henry & June re-creates Paris in its bohemian prime, a world of prostitutes, magicians, circus freaks—and, in one scene, a throng of painted, half-naked Mardi Gras revellers. The movie is a parade of erotic diversions, including an electric lesbian love scene between Thurman and de Medeiros. But, like Lightness, Kaufman’s other celebration of sex without guilt, Henry & June tends to drag out its pleasures without consummating its themes.
Memphis Belle, meanwhile, celebrates war without guilt. After so many Hollywood movies have reopened the wounds of Vietnam, two
British film-makers have created an American war story that poses no moral dilemma. It combines the forces of Oscar-winning producer David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields) and director Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal). Memphis Belle is about nine young crew members of a B-17 bomber making their 25th, and final, mission of the Second World War. As the captain, Matthew Modine heads a fine cast that includes Eric Stoltz, D. B. Sweeny and singer Harry Connick Jr. They do as well as can be expected considering that they are acting through oxygen masks much of the time. John Lithgow portrays a supercilious military publicist who concocts a heroic homecoming for the boys—a satiric subplot that seems simply hypocritical in a film that otherwise is shamelessly devoted to hard selling heroism.
The movie’s real star is the Memphis Belle itself, the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” with its Plexiglas gun turrets. Memphis Belle is the airborne equivalent of a submarine movie, creating the same sense of claustrophobia, of men trapped in a steel hull rattled by the thunder of flak instead of depth charges. With a surging sound track reminiscent of Chariots of Fire, it is a simplistic tale of fun-loving lads who learn that war is hell. Britain’s Puttnam has tried to reinvent an antique Hollywood style: the movie, like the aircraft, is a model that Americans stopped making long ago.
In Avalon, another Oscar-winning film-maker, American director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam), glorifies the past. It belongs to a series of personal films that Levinson has set in his home town of Baltimore. Avalon follows Diner(1982), a flashback to adolescence, and Tin Men (1987), a farce about aluminum-siding salesmen.
Semi-autobiographical, the movie tells a bittersweet story about a clan of immigrants who settle in Avalon, a row-house neighborhood, then lose their bearings when the next generation moves to the suburbs in the early 1950s.
Jules (Aidan Quinn) and his wife, Ann (Elizabeth Perkins), try to carve out some independence from their Old World parents while Jules and his cousin set up a store that sells nothing but television sets.
Avalon is a parable about the price of prosperity, the evolution from the extended family at the dining-room table to the nuclear family hunched over TV trays. Quinn and Montgomery give strong performances, and Joan Plowright does a fine comic turn as Jules’s mother. But Levinson belabors his lament for the family and his indictment of television. By the time his three-generation saga staggers to a close, the magic has faded and a quiet tedium has settled over Avalon’s undying romance with the past.
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