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Holy Smoke

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 17 December 1999

Directed by Jane Campion

Starring  Kate Winslet, 
Harvey Keitel, Paul Goddard, 
Pam Grier, Julie Hamilton, 
Sophie Lee and Tim Robertson.

Written by Anna Campion and Jane Campion

Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke is not an easy film, and it’s by no means a perfect film. One minute lost in the intoxication of religious ecstasy, the next grappling in a battle of ideologically clashing wills, the tension suddenly shattered in a bizarre slapstick aside before it all starts building again, this film keeps the audience dancing like a fish on the line. It’s frustrating and even a little distracting, but it’s a damnably compelling mix of emotional color. Campion, who wrote the script with her sister Anna, keeps her audience on its toes with sudden changes of mood, defying expectations at almost every turn. If the resulting work is a little hard to define, to bring together into a single sense of wholeness, maybe that’s less a problem with the film than our need to define and the methods we bring to creating closure. Maybe there is method to Campion’s madness.

I admit that film practically won me over in the opening scenes. The titles (formed, appropriately, by wisps of digital steam) open on Australian tourist Ruth Barron’s (Kate Winslet) tour of India while Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” plays over the soundtrack. (There is no sense of kitch in the use of the song and the gospel-like sounds infuse the images with a holy rolling jolt of giddy energy.) Ruth is drunk with the sights and smells and heady atmosphere of India, open for every new experience coming her way, and seemingly easy prey for a charismatic guru. Or so explains Ruth’s traveling companion, whose remembrance resembles a dreamy drug trip guided by a Svengali-style hypnotist. The report is embellished and unreliable but the facts are incontestable: Ruth is staying in India as a part of a religious commune led by a charismatic guru. Ruth’s family, gathered for a powwow in their ticky tacky Sydney suburban home, plot to extricate her from her cult and put her into the hands of a deprogrammer. But first they have to get her back home. Mum (Julie Hamilton) gamely travels to Dehli with a phony tale of Dad’s illness and a final wish to see his daughter before passing on. Ruth’s ambivalence seems self serving and a little cool, but ironically a family illness brings her back: xenophobic Mum panics in a swarm of street urchins, drops her inhaler, and faints in the streets. The scene is a cross between Suddenly Last Summer and Lord of the Flies, but Campion keeps her from seeming the ugly Australian. She’s a genuinely frightened woman, alienated by the squalor and the culture, but Campion insists on her modesty and loving sincerity. Ruth, ever the dutiful daughter, accompanies Mum back home, strapped to stretcher and fed by an IV in a shot both satirical and sad. It’s a significant gesture that, later in the film, helps illuminate the family dynamic.

Cut to Harvey Keitel in black clothes, snakeskin boots, dark glasses, jet black hair, and his own Neil Diamond song: “I Am… I Said,” appropriately declarative for a man whose business it is to walk into a group of strangers, take control, and break the will of his patient. Oozing with manufactured machismo, this American urban cowboy is P.J. Waters, cult exiter, hired to deprogram Ruth.

Ruth doesn’t seem like your normal cult member. Back home she’s like any other teenager, screaming and giggling with her friends, only as they pull out pictures of boyfriends and pop stars, she kisses the aged, alien face of her Indian guru (much to their girlish repulsion). As she tries to explain how she’s changed inside she sounds more like a Christian talking about a born-again experience than a cultist. But it doesn’t take her long to catch on to the trap laid by her well meaning family, and the betrayal she feels -- from everyone, but especially Mom, her only family that has the mettle to frankly confess their little conspiracy when confronted -- turns her from loving hippie chick to defiant rebel.

Waters has more than a fight on his hands, he has an opponent the likes of which he’s never seen, and an unexpected change of events has left him trying to manage a two-person job solo (Ruth’s family is next to useless). Vain, demanding, and full of himself, Waters can’t keep his libido under control and before long his flirtations with Yvonne (Sophie Lee), the sexy wife of Ruth’s beefy but thick brother, turn to sex (star struck Yvonne, who sees Waters as some sort of American hunk, is all too happy to comply). Ruth sees it all -- in fact, Ruth is most clear headed of the family and sees everything -- and loses her respect for Waters as an authority figure almost immediately while divining his weaknesses. As the two of them walk into a three day ordeal cut off from civilization and family, where he must break down Ruth’s defenses and conquer will, his need for an assistant becomes all too clear -- he needs the barrier to help protect himself.

Critics have compared Holy Smoke to Jane Campion’s debut film Sweetie for it’s explosions of absurd humor and bizarre asides (and for all its off-the-wall laughs, Sweetie was a dark little comedy). But it’s more accurately a warped reflection of The Piano, an edgy and unexpected look into sex and desire and power, swirled in a libidinous stew of seduction (religious and sexual) painted in a palette of sun baked desert colors and hazy hallucinatory imagery. Winslet, infamously nude in a scene far more charged than her peek-a-boo posing in Titanic, is more just at ease with her body and her sexuality. She uses her earthy, Rubinesque figure in a table-turning power ploy in the battle of wills Ruth plays with Waters that spins off into territory that takes them both by surprise. Living in close quarters in the hot-house atmosphere of their outback shack, passion and lust and love become confused in a physical union that changes both lives for good.

Just when it seems that Campion has let the issues of religion and faith wisp away like the words in the title, the film comes crashing down to Earth in Ruth’s clear-eyed self-assessment. Perhaps she’s “won” the battle, as she states in a kind of playground pride, breaking Waters’ will and shattering his carefully cultivated sense of masculine power and swaggering self confidence. But in a way he’s won too: as she strips herself, literally, of her religious fashion statement, she also removes the sense of goodness and honor that they represented. There’s no gloating over her victory, as she recognizes its moral cost in a self-examination of her ideals and her actualization. And just when you think Campion has pushed the characters to their limit, she lets the libidinous forces loose in an explosion of self-destructive desperation.

To call Winslet’s performance voluptuous makes a nice double entendre to be sure, but it captures the passion and emotional power she invests in the role. Keitel, for his part, seems like a conglomerate parody of his gallery of tough guy-roles, and at times it is, but he’s undercutting his own image while deconstructing his masculinity (Campion makes this explicit in the final act, where Keitel’s Waters happily shirks his duty and his image while in Ruth’s sexual thrall). Before the film is over, Keitel takes Waters through a virtual rebirth of his own.

Though heavy with heady issues and raw emotions,  this is a bright, vibrant, vivacious film, filled with music and color and drama and humor. Delicious images, from the garish middle class cookie cutter home to the red desert landscape of the arid inland shack where the wills battle to a kitschy heat-stroke hallucination of Ruth as a pop Kali (set to the tune of “Baby It’s You”), punctuate the drama, setting it all in a hyper-real world between suburbia and madness. And despite the dark forces unleashed, Campion provides the gentle understanding to allow these characters to, finally, confront themselves and set themselves back on track to lives they truly aspire to, on their own without the trappings they’ve gathered to help define themselves, whether they be rainbow saris or snakeskin boots.

The confident but modest sense of purpose shown in the moving, masterfully understated coda may be one of the most profoundly introspective moments of the year. Faith is not some wispy phantom presence, Campion suggests, but a hidden force within that can be too easily blown away for even the best of reasons. The glory of the film belongs to characters who recognize and re-ignite their embers, stoking the fires of faith for the best of reasons.

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