[Written for The Stranger]
Recklessness, combined with a passionate, headstrong commitment to see things through to the end, can be deliriously exciting to brush up against, or it can be ruthlessly self-absorbed. No filmmaker balances between these poles, and is more daringly reckless, than Jane Campion. Her characters are often so wrapped up in their own certainties, they barely communicate with the outside world. (Campion’s most famous heroine is a mute, after all.) But her films are a constant stream of glorious, thought-provoking images, racing from one to the next without waiting for the audience to catch up.
With recklessness comes a fondness for excess, and Campion is guilty as charged. Many people will think that Holy Smoke! crams in too many ideas — about religion, free will, gender relations, fear of aging — to deal with them respectfully or tastefully. They’re right, of course, but Campion has nearly as little patience with respectability and good taste as she does with likeable characters and spelling everything out for her audience. So it’s natural, in a way, that from these big, serious issues she has decided to make a comedy.
Holy Smoke! is a comedy that begins with a young woman having a spiritual awakening. Ruth (Kate Winslet), on vacation from her dreary Australian suburb, is in India and having a grand time with her friend, jostling through crowds, dancing at parties, sampling the food. Then, as a tourist, she attends the religious service of a guru and falls head over heels into it. The scene of her conversion — tacky and glorious all at once, complete with the holy man radiating light and a third eye opening on her forehead at his touch — is one of those moments people say only Campion could have filmed; the fact is, she’s the only person who would have even tried for such naïve overstatement, which only serves to make the scene funnier.
Meanwhile, Ruth’s family (a charmingly grotesque clan, complete with two doltish brothers — one straight and married, the other gay — and a lecherous dad who lounges about the house in striped Speedos) fear she’s been brainwashed. Mom visits India, gags at the crowds and toilet facilities, and tricks Ruth into returning home. There they force her into meeting with cult deprogrammer P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), flown in from America at great expense. P.J. is so cocksure, so unrepentant in his machismo, that the family never questions his authority. Ruth, however, takes one look at this peacock, with his sunglasses, alligator boots, and constant spritzes of breath freshener, and dismisses him as a phony through and through, right down to the tips of his dyed hair. (Hair and its styling have always been important to Campion; remember Janet Frame’s frizzy halo in An Angel at My Table, or the maddeningly intricate plaits forced upon Isabel Osmond after her marriage in The Portrait of a Lady.)
For three days the deprogrammer and the deprogramee are isolated in a shack in the middle of precisely nowhere, arguing over god and faith and knowing thyself. Inevitably, they turn upon what each sees as the other’s failings: her youthful arrogance at her own beauty and perceived independence; his futile attempts to stave off middle age and to drag everyone down to his own cynical disbelief. Trapped in the hut, Ruth and P.J. endlessly chip away at each other’s resistance. In order to weaken hers, he takes her sarong, a symbol of her new spiritual identity, and ties it to a tree; she eventually demolishes his by setting the wrap on fire and standing before him naked. (Campion underlines the mutual fear and desire by having Ruth piss down her legs — about as reckless as you can get in a seduction.)
Sex becomes a way to balance the power relationship, and eventually their erotic give-and-take becomes physical. Plenty of directors — smart, talented filmmakers — would have ended here or soon after, but for Campion this is another launching point. After mutual breakdowns, Ruth and P.J. think they know each other as well as they ever will, but both still have plenty to learn. By the end they tease, torture, and love each other some more: Ruth effortlessly exposes P.J. as a pathetic buffoon; P.J. advises Ruth to “be kind” (even writing it on her forehead backwards, so her third eye can read it too); Ruth straps books to her feet (Dostoyevsky; a dictionary) and goes marching off to the desert; and P. J. has a holy vision of his own — as bizarre, funny, and wonderful as the one by Ruth that started all of this.
The two leads deserve credit for such brave, honest performances — Keitel especially, tackling a much more dangerous role than the tortured souls and psychopaths he’s famous for, by sending up his own persona. The riotous script was co-written with the director by her sister Anna, while cinematographer Dion Beebe captures all the glorious tricks of light that make bustling India and desolate Australia much more similar than you’d imagine. But save most of the praise for Campion, once again pushing everything to its bitter end and then, surprisingly but coherently, going past even that.