Smoke Gets in Their Eyes

New York--

 

"MY FEELING IS that spiritual experiences are very much like dreams and like sex," says Holy Smoke director Jane Campion. "It's hard for anyone to experience someone else's." Speaking at the New York Film Festival in the company of her sister Anna Campion, with whom she wrote Holy Smoke, the director is addressing how it is that the spiritual transformations of her heroine--a young Australian woman (Kate Winslet) who falls first for a guru in India and then a professional "cult exiter" (Harvey Keitel) in the Aussie outback--may appear rather abstract or even unbelievable to the audience. "If you were meditating right now," she tells one critic, "then I'm on the outside of that [experience], and I don't know what's going on in your mind."

"Well, I've got some idea," jokes Anna--and the two Campions laugh like sisters do.

Actually, this shared giggle represents a rare moment during the press conference when the New Zealand-bred siblings appear to be on the same wavelength: More often, they brusquely finish each thoughts, while in other instances they simply shout out full sentences at the same time. (In these cases, the reporter can be forgiven for failing to distinguish one sister's thickly accented outbursts from the other's.) Indeed, it's downright nerve-racking to eavesdrop on this "dialogue" between a world-class filmmaker and her less renowned older sister--a melodrama that, in its way, isn't so unlike the running power struggle between the characters of Holy Smoke. Small wonder the sisters wrote early drafts of the screenplay by taking turns arguing each character's philosophy aloud. And no wonder, either, that one journalist among us wonders whether anything positive has come out of all this fighting--in the film, that is.

"Well," begins Jane, after a long pause, "I think in some ways the story is set up as a journey to the heart. It's about how vulnerable we all are, how we fall in love and out of love, those leaps of faith we take. In particular, [Keitel's] PJ, I think, believes that he has found in [Winslet's] Ruth his avenging angel. He had created an identity for himself that wasn't working for him anymore, and he's a sensitive enough man so that, in the end, he does want to be touched by this girl who has moved him with her freshness, with her ability to believe what he himself does not understand. You know, everyone needs a little help, and so falling in love with Ruth is, in my mind, the thing that allows him to cross those bridges between them. Basically, he gains humility."

Anna continues: "It's like, in the first half of the film, he is deconstructing her spirituality--or we are, to some extent. And then the second half is looking at another form of spirituality--a more hypnotic form, which is love."

At that, Jane abruptly interjects, seemingly wary of any implication that Holy Smoke is a film about love conquering all. "I don't think we're saying that their love is a healthier spirituality than the guru's--but maybe it's a pathway to something healthier."

The convergent paths that the sisters took as budding professionals seem to follow Holy Smoke's own map of psychosexual analysis and cinematic experimentation. Jane majored in anthropology at a college in New Zealand before her tenure at an Australian art school led her to begin making short films. Anna, too, is a filmmaker, having written and directed the indie drama Loaded (1994), which was almost invariably described as "a disappointment" coming from "Jane Campion's older sister"--this following a varied background that included psychotherapists' training and a master's degree in film from the Royal College of Art. Anna also worked as an actor for a number of years, and to the degree that Holy Smoke showcases the competing styles of two ambitious performers, one playing a chameleonic searcher (Winslet) and the other a highly focused director of energies (Keitel), the film lends even more easily to a reading of sibling rivalry between the lines.

"The problem," Anna says of the challenge of casting the film, "is that when you have someone strong like Harvey [Keitel] paired with someone who's weaker, they're not going to be able to contain the acting, um, polarity--or, the acting, the act..."

"The energies of the actors," Jane iterates, shifting once again the polarity of the Campions.

 
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