Described as almost everything from a purveyor of obscenity and filth to the most remarkable original writer of the age, nearly all of the American writer Henry Miller’s books were banned in the US, beginning in 1934 with Tropic of Cancer, which remained suppressed in America until the early 1960s.
This film version of the novel – the autobiographical adventures of Miller and his friends as they pursue art, money, food and sex in Paris in the 1930s, when he was a penniless, struggling writer – remained incredibly true to its source, retaining most of the key characters and situations of the book.
It also contained the most candid and daring language to emanate from the American cinema screen at the time – even now, it’s unusual to hear the c-bomb dropped so frequently in a motion picture.
Director Joseph Strick chose not to recreate the Paris of the 1930s and subtly updated the story’s setting to 1969.
Filming took place all over Paris, from the select Hotel Trianon Palace in Versailles to the working-class neighbourhoods near the Canal St Martin.
The principal roles in the film were played by a carefully selected group of American and French actors, chosen not for their star quality but for their ability to fuse with the characters in the novel and with Strick’s vision of how they should be played.
Rip Torn plays Henry Miller as a non-stop hedonist and soured cynic who scrounges off his friends, borrows money and beguiles his way into dinner invitations while sleeping with any woman who looks in his direction, including the wives of his friends.
He has a wife named Mona (Ellen Burstyn, pictured), but she wanders off after an itchy night in a lice-infested hotel.
When Miller has used up all his friends in Paris, he takes a job teaching English to French boys in Dijon. He is interviewed by the school’s principal, who parses English in backwards rhetoric and Miller – ridiculing him – answers in kind. Then he goes to his class and instantly wins the attention of his students by teaching them – in English – about the penises of elephants and whales.
It’s essentially an extended dirty joke, but there’s an innocence to it that shines above the rest of the film, which is largely both boring and bad.
James T. Callahan
M. Le Censeur
Stuart De Silva