Happy 25th Birthday, 'Henry & June' and the NC-17 Rating

Maria de Medeiros and Uma Thurman in 'Henry & June'/Image © Universal Pictures

As any regular Signature reader knows, few things pique our passion quite so much as a movie about writers and writing. But unlike the rest of the arts, writing is a creative discipline that is nearly impossible to depict visually with any kind of verve. Which is why it helps when the writers in question are obsessed with sex, feeding their sensual and philosophical inquiries with real-world carnal adventures. In that sense, there are no better subjects for a film about writers than Henry Miller and Anais Nin, who made an art of sexting long before someone figured out how to use emojis in a dirty way. Philip Kaufman's "Henry & June," which illustrates the writers' erotic and literary collaborations in 1930s Paris as shaped by their association and obsession with Miller's alluring wife, was released twenty-five years ago today, on October 5, 1990. Fittingly, the date also represents the 25th anniversary of the NC-17 rating, which was intended to differentiate between thought-provoking films that tackle mature themes and content and the pornographic films that had hijacked the X rating.

We won't get into the dubious efficacy of the MPAA's rating system except to note, as many others have, its prejudiced application, which finds disturbing violence much more permissible than sex-related content. Or more specifically, content that dares to explore female sexuality with visual and emotional candor. As the first film released with an NC-17 rating, "Henry & June" is a telling milestone, since it mainly concerns itself with June's libidinous power and Nin's sexual awakening as described by the latter in her journal entries from the period (collected in the 1986 book Henry and June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin). As in Ernst Lubitsch and Ben Hecht's scandalous 1933 romp "Design for Living," "Henry & June" centers on a pair of artists fixated on a manipulative, muse-like woman they're both bedding (or sexually drawn to). Beyond any nudity or simulated sex scenes, what the ratings board may have reflexively objected to was Kaufman's focus on the enigmatically shifting contours of female sexuality, from intellectual to animalistic, that are so essential to a woman's identity. To men (or, say, the faceless members of the MPAA committee), that dynamic life force can be as intimidating as it is exhilarating, which is another way of describing the types of films that tempt the more restrictive NC-17 rating.

Over the years, NC-17 has been applied most frequently to foreign films -- Pedro Almodóvar's "Bad Education" (2004), Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Dreamers" (2003), Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" (2007) -- that depict fairly graphic or kinky sex, because, well, those Europeans just don't understand propriety. Homegrown films such as "Bad Lieutenant" (1992), "Crash" (1996), and "Shame" (2011) carried the rating for similar reasons, but then there are the independent movies that opted to fight for an R rating by cutting material -- most notably, Oscar-nominated films "Blue Valentine" and "Boys Don't Cry," which had the audacity to show a woman having an orgasm. The problem is really less the rating than the vague, infantilizing "community standards" that media outlets rely on to determine advertising guidelines, resulting in business strategies that require self-censorship. On the other hand, the notoriety generated by "Henry & June"'s seminal disreputable status likely guaranteed its theatrical success. According to Box Office Mojo, the movie is still the second-highest-grossing NC-17 release ever (behind "Showgirls," which is offensive for reasons that have nothing to do with sex).

Kaufman apparently knew Nin, who encouraged his filmmaking aspirations when he was young. He clearly took her example to heart, indulging his own literary and sexual fascinations throughout a wide-ranging career that includes adaptations of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Doug Wright's play Quills, which centers on the original trailblazing sex-obsessed scribe, the Marquis de Sade. There are sexier movies than "Henry & June," but few make as earnest an attempt to delineate the link between creativity and libido in the writer's life. Whenever we find the courage to let our curiosity -- of the mind, of the body, or both -- win out over our insecurities and fears, it inevitably leads to a meaningful breakthrough, whether we're engaging in art or sex. "These people are obsessed with sex," Hal Hinson wrote in his Washington Post review of Kaufman's film. "They write about it, live it, and see themselves as adventurers, claiming an untamed, uncharted wilderness, and helping to reshape literature in the process."