For clarity's sake, and at the risk of turning off earnest, Lagoon-going Alan Alda types, let's get our cards on the table about Jane Campion. Everyone knows she's a fine filmmaker who always makes you think and never lets you off whatever hook you're squirming on. She also has a knack for sudden dream sequences that, paradoxically, are often the clearest and least self-indulgent things in her films. She's a maverick, and that's precious these days.
That said, I must confess that I have rarely liked, much less loved, one of her heroines, and I have never loved one of her films. At times, Campion's movies--including Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, and The Piano--suffer from a marshy subtlety that recalls the deceptive complexity of certain Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette songs. Where the fuck is the chorus? you want to shout. Can we get over the sighs and whispers and tangential mysteries and just talk? That is: You rarely know exactly what Campion's characters are fighting for, what the stakes are, whose vision this is, or whether we even like these people. (We'll exclude The Portrait of a Lady, which, by the way, was based on a Henry James novel.)
But such ambiguities aren't necessarily problems and, in fact, could be considered the greatest of virtues. And I'm not going to say that formal complexity of this sort is inherently female: For one thing, consider Quentin Tarantino, that virile master of the four-dimensional plotline (and the lovable antihero). Still, somehow, Campion's style feels defensive. Even worse, for all their close-ups and voiceovers and private moments, her films assume an anthropological distance both from their characters and their maker herself. (It's no big surprise to learn that Campion got her first degree in anthropology.)
Enter Kate Winslet in Campion's Holy Smoke. Here's an actress (and a character) so strongly herself, so at ease in her world and her body, that defensiveness is not only unnecessary but a non sequitur to her being. Celebrity aside, it makes sense that Holy Smoke is being marketed as a Kate Winslet vehicle, because she takes the wheel masterfully and immediately, steering the film to secret places that the director admits were never marked on her map.
These challenges are familiar to any lead actor: How much will they, or can they, dominate the film? Whose film is it, anyway? For her part, Winslet intuitively takes over whenever possible, having recently elevated the greatest potential flop in history, Titanic, to surprising heights. Recall that movie's nude scene for a moment. It could have been, would have been, just another act of everyday objectification, demoralizing but predictable. Yet Winslet's disrobing in Titanic was an act of sexual assertiveness, calm vulnerability, cinematic domineeering, and lovable loveliness all in one. She made narcissism sublime, wresting that film out of James Cameron's hands and staring back at us, straight in the eyes.
Winslet goes farther still in Holy Smoke, and the results are even more audacious. Yeah, she gets naked, all the way this time. Yeah, she pees on herself. These are the obvious shocks that some critics will rave about. But she and co-star Harvey Keitel undress in a much dicier way, too, making good on promises that Campion has made in previous films but never fulfilled. Winslet plays Ruth, a 20-ish Australian girl who travels to India and is wooed into a cult by its weird leader, "Baba." ("He's pure love," says Ruth, who wants to marry him. "He's not cute!" protest her sensible girlfriends.) Ruth's soldierly, asthmatic mum (Julie Hamilton) travels to India to rescue her, and delivers Ruth--with the help of her shitty male relatives--into the hands of PJ (Keitel), an American "exit counselor." Most of the film is shot at the "halfway hut" in the middle of the Australian desert, where Ruth and PJ fight for control of each other's--and their own--souls.
Campion is a whiz at the musical interlude, seducing us in Holy Smoke with an array of tasty bits: an ecstatic opening montage of Ruth traveling in India, while white cultists dance in slo-mo to the boom of Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy" (Tarantino would love this); Ruth driving through the desert singing Alanis's "You Oughta Know" really loud; Ruth as a desert mirage, an eight-armed Indian goddess dancing in the sky to the Shirelles' "Baby, It's You"; Keitel's character stumbling bowlegged in the sand, wearing nothing but a red...oh, heck. It's too good. I can't ruin it for you.
Co-written by Campion and her sister Anna, the script of Holy Smoke (based on the sisters' own novel) is predictably torqued out, but somewhat clarified by a struggle between two distinct principles. The Campion sisters took on the opposing viewpoints of PJ and Ruth to write the book and the film, but that's not the real conflict. Instead, the tension involves a love/hate relationship with humanity: a relentless, claustrophobic view of people in groups, cut with a loving and expansive gaze at the sacred individual. The camera focuses half the time on Ruth's ugly, antic family members, who don't stand a chance against Campion's middle-class self-loathing. Genderwise, Campion proves herself an equal-opportunity misanthrope: Ruth's gay brother (Paul Goddard) is a creep, and her sister-in-law (Sophie Lee) is a superditz whose pathetic pursuit of PJ gets far too much attention--she's a fish in a barrel, really. (Just before she goes down on PJ, we do briefly glimpse her inner life: She fucks her dopey husband but fantasizes about Tom Cruise--which is sort of funny, considering his wife's history with Campion.)
The point of all this, one supposes, is to suggest that while Ruth isn't safe in a cult, she wouldn't be much better off as an acculturated suburban Australian female. (Um...duh!) Putting rather too fine a point on it, her mother and PJ's partner (the latter played by Pam Grier--hello, Tarantino!) sing "The Lord's Prayer" in a moment of desperation over Ruth's fate. The Campions claim to have included this family business as comic relief, but it's actually quite a trial and, at times, an annoying intrusion into the film's other life.
Then again, all the cynicism and the subplots merely supply the greasy conduit for the film's real current: the secret life of Ruth and PJ. And it's in this section that Holy Smoke nearly absolves itself of all cinematic sin. It certainly plumbs a magnetic core that few films even approach, including all of Campion's previous features. The director does exactly what she should: She casts these two characters in an appropriate light, with well-suited music and finely cut dialogue, and then lets them lose their minds--which the actors are determined to approximate. All that Neil Diamond business is meant to frame PJ as hopelessly middle-aged, a man stuck in the Seventies. He's in the business of controlling young minds through a clinical, three-part process, and likes to think of himself as a real stud. (Campion camps up the machismo by introducing him to the tune of Diamond's "I Am...I Said.") PJ wears cowboy boots and dark shades, dyes his hair black, and has no idea how he sounds in one rich exchange: Ruth says the Indians are more honest than he in their hatred of women--to which PJ responds, wounded, "I love ladies!"
Recognizing PJ's sexuality as his weak point, Ruth cruelly turns it against him. Then again, PJ admits, he likes it. The professional's sleek plan breaks down rather giddily against Ruth's force of will and her sexual aggression, but PJ believes, to his credit, that this is the only way to truly "deprogram" her. It's not that Ruth doesn't want to see the Truth; in fact, that is her only goal, ever. But she refuses to be coerced.
At the beginning of Holy Smoke, one character suggests that romantic love and cultism are essentially the same thing. But the film changes its skin during PJ and Ruth's three-day experiment: Abandoning easy, scientific theories, it becomes not a story about cults, but a prayer about love. That's clearly the braver course, and for this, we must thank the movie's courageous and brilliant stars. The magic is not in their words, and it's certainly not in the overwrought, improbable finale, wherein PJ gets a pretty raw deal. But that's why the performances are ineffable. People don't fall in love through words, or specific activities, or even through sex. Love's very nature is unknowable. Somehow, that's exactly what is revealed in Holy Smoke.
Where any film achieves the ultimate goal--that is, the clear communication of the deepest human emotions--is where film criticism breaks down. And that's also where Holy Smoke triumphs, especially over the director's other work. Most of Campion's heroines have been unable to allow us into their interior lives. Ruth and PJ--who exchange their "hero" and "heroine" mantles with relish--wrestle inexorably toward their cores, terrified of exposure but more afraid of the loneliness of disguise. I know, that sounds a bit like The Piano, but this is far juicier stuff. Unlike many of Campion's movies, this one isn't about recognizing and naming oppression, but about what comes next: grappling with the chaos of freedom.
It would be wrong for me to describe this role reversal in more detail. Ruth observes, after the fact, "Something really did happen, didn't it?" Yes, something happened all right. And the best honor I can give it is to shut the hell up.
Holy Smoke starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.
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