Tropic of Cancer
1970 Directed by Joseph Strick. Starring Rip Torn, Ellen Burstyn, Phil Brown, David Bauer, Laurence Ligneres.
REVIEWED By Pamela Bruce, Fri., Aug. 13, 1993
Based on the once highly controversial novel by Henry Miller (it was banned as obscene in the U.S. after its publication in Paris in 1934), this obscure, 23 year-old, X-rated film is now being re-released as a new print. Producer/director Strick (who has also been responsible for bringing to the screen other literary classics -- Ulysses and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) co-wrote with Betty Botley this loose film adaptation of Miller's celebrated adventure in self-revelation. Updating the setting to Paris in the late-1960s, we find Henry Miller (Torn), down on his luck, as he tries to bum a few francs from a friend to afford a hotel room for his just-arrived wife, Mona (Burstyn) and himself. They quickly check into a seedy hotel, and make frenzied, passionate love for hours until bedbugs creep into the scene and break up their party for two. Mona demands that they check into another, more refined hotel -- which Henry reluctantly does -- but she suddenly decides that she's had enough of Paris, packs her bags, and leaves him behind. From this point forward, the narrative becomes less linear and more episodic as Henry's day-to-day existence revolves around finding steady work, a place to sleep, a free meal, and easy women for a roll in the hay. As for the construction of the film living up to the standards of Miller's subjectivity in the novel, Strick manages to be successful. He gives the viewer a heavy dose of omniscience by riding the riptide of French New Wave stylization with respect to using Torn as a narrator, overlapping sound, and the heavy, but smooth manipulation of time and space through editing. On the other hand, however, Strick's composition of Henry Miller as a character is one-sided. He takes the rough, poetic nature that Miller expresses in his writing, and turns him into a reprehensible, vulgar, sleazy bastard by exploiting the hardcore sexual passages from the novel. In fact, the film looks as though it were an attempt to cash in on the then-new freedom in presenting “explicit” aspects in mainstream films of the late Sixties. But, compared to today's standards, this film has very little to offer in the way of titillation -- just boring, mechanical sex, some nudity, and a lot of crude sexual terms in the dialogue. If Strick had opted to set Tropic of Cancer within the same time frame as the novel to capture the gritty romanticism of living life on the edge in the late-1920s Paris, as opposed to the free-love, swinging Sixties, maybe this film might have worked better.