Paris, 1931 and Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) is trying to become a published writer, but finding it more difficult than she anticipated, though she has had plenty of practice jotting in her diary every night to hone her skills. She thinks the best way to get into print is to pen erotica since there is always a market for that, but when she takes her works around the publishers they see her as some kind of loose woman and wish to take advantage of her. She is married to Hugo Guiler (Richard E. Grant) who is a banker, and more enthusiastic about his profession than his wife is which is baffling to him in light of the way it funds her literary ambition, but soon another aspiring writer will enter her life...
He being a certain Henry Miller, played by a rather extraordinary-looking Fred Ward. This was not a sequel to the popular sitcom Terry and June, nor was it a follow-up to David Lynch's Dune, it was in fact a detailing of a time in Paris which has fascinated artistic types for decades, especially when sex was involved in the stories of those days, as it inevitably was in the case of Mr Miller. Here he and Anaïs Nin (who is actually the lead character) had an affair which brought out the best in their respective scribblings, but had a price to pay in their relationships with others, and the most important relationship each had was, according to this, the passion they felt for Henry's wife June, here played by Uma Thurman just at the point in her career when stardom was inevitable.
One snag director Philip Kaufman, into his phase of depicting sexual situations in his drama, suffered was that when Thurman arrived for the shoot she announced she would not be doing nudity in her role, which was going to be an impediment to all those steamy scenes he had dreamt up in his script. He got around it, but once you notice Uma is doing her darnedest not to show anything, or not very much, it does become a distraction and has you pondering whether Kaufman should have gone the Austin Powers route. It would have brightened up a far too protracted experience which less than conveying what it was like to spend time in the presence of these giants of saucy literature, made you think you were on a night out with the nineteen-thirties equivalent of hipsters.
De Medeiros remained sweet and vulnerable, but Henry was a bad influence on Anaïs and soon she is as hard to get on with as he is. Even more distracting than Uma's no nudity clause in her contract was that Ward sported a bald head which looked far from natural, an obvious wig and shaven head combination that would have looked better with a big red nose and painted smile. Alec Baldwin had originally signed on to appear in the role, but two weeks before filming began decided he didn't wish to adopt that look Ward was subsequently saddled with, and you can only say how wise that was, as no matter how accomplished Ward was the fact he looked like Bozo the Clown did him no favours, though in a funny (peculiar) way it might have operated as a commentary on Miller's actual demeanour.
Naturally, in spite of Kaufman's lofty aims for encapsulating the heady times of between the wars Paris, there were always those who would be suspicious he was simply trying to smuggle porn into mainstream cinemas and so it was that in the United States the censors slapped an X certificate on the film; when there were protests, they created a brand new certificate, the NC-17, to remove the stigma of the previous one for efforts of artistic merit that happened to have rumpy-pumpy in them, but nobody was going to swallow that line and the NC-17 turned out to be just as taboo as the old X was. It also built up expectations in this particular instance that it would be wall to wall sauciness, when in fact it was more a rumination over the worth of using real life in writers' work, the experiences and personalities of those around them merely fuel for their professions. Certainly there were sex scenes, two including cult Euro-starlet Brigitte Lahaie, but it was so determined to be respectable and intellectual that the whole thing was stifling, stuffy and failed to convince you of the subject's worth.