Tropic of Cancer is a nasty barrage of sex, scheming, and vulgarity, leavened with a strain of ironic literary observation. However, this combination of elements should come as no surprise given the subject material: Tropic of Cancer is the only feature-length adaptation of notorious American writer Henry Miller’s work. The sex-crazed Miller’s adventures as an expat living in France also inspired the 1990 biopic Henry & June—yet while the latter film was a straightforward narrative infused with sophisticated erotica, Tropic of Cancer is a grungy experimental film punctuated by seedy simulated sex. In Tropic of Cancer, nearly every physical encounter has a grim punchline, whether it’s the revelation that one of the partners has VD or a glimpse of one partner stealing money from the other.
Our guide through these vignettes is Henry Miller (Rip Torn), a perpetually impoverished writer who occasionally takes day jobs doing things like editing copy for an English-language newspaper, but mostly subsists on favors from friends. A hobo without a permanent address, he crashes on couches, takes hotel rooms whenever he has money in his pocket, and persuades fellow Americans to feed him even though he offers virtually no consideration in return. In addition to leeching off everyone he knows, Henry spends every waking moment trying to get laid, indiscriminately sleeping with prostitutes, strangers, and the wives of his friends.
Director Joseph Strick presents these events in fragmented little bursts, loosely connected by voiceover featuring Torn reading from Miller’s books. (Unfortunately, most of the voiceover comprises crudely rhapsodic descriptions of female sex organs.) Parisian location photography adds authenticity, although it’s peculiar that Strick shot the picture with modern clothing (circa 1970) instead of matching the 1930s era during which most of Miller’s real-life Gallic exploits took place.
Muddying the waters further is Torn’s casting and characterization. Constantly unkempt, flashing a devil’s smile full of yellow teeth, and relentless about seeking his own pleasures no matter the cost to others, Torn’s version of Miller is an irredeemable cretin, so it’s hard to know what reaction Strick hoped to elicit: Was the idea to document the extremes of a rare man, or to incarnate Miller’s ideas about the “honesty” one finds in embracing animal instincts?
The picture never speaks clearly enough to make a strong statement one way or another, and Strick’s choice to fill the screen with naked women undercuts whatever artistic aspirations might be present—Tropic of Cancer ends up feeling like a pretentious nudie flick. Still, for adventurous viewers, Tropic of Cancer may be worth exploring for hidden virtues. Furthermore, the presence of an uncredited Ellen Burstyn in the movie provides some interest; the future Oscar winner appears briefly, mostly without clothing, as Henry’s quasi-estranged wife.
Tropic of Cancer: FREAKY