When I dove headlong into the films of Jane Campion just a few weeks ago (a few weeks! surely it's been longer than that?), I knew very little about what was going to happen to me. One of the few things I did know was that her two most recent films were generally, perhaps even universally, regarded as significant weak points in her career. They're messy, they wander about pointlessly, demonstrating none of the immaculate artistry of The Piano, that sort of thing.
Well, I've now seen the first of those two, and here is my verdict: Holy Smoke is messy, wandering, and not remotely as immaculate as The Piano. Big fucking deal. If it were tidy, focused, and perfect, it would no longer be the same film, and the film that it is as things stand is a perfectly fascinating example of what a completely fearless director putting it all out there, making the movie she damn well wants to make without concern for making the movie that other people expect her to make. No, I don't suppose that Holy Smoke is strong enough to justify the sterling reputation that she earned for her incredible early run of features, but if you asked me - and since you are reading this, you're at least implicitly asking me - it's one of her most fun films to watch, even as it delves into thematic areas almost as murky and challenging as the swamp surrounding the greatly under-appreciated The Portrait of a Lady.
Unlike most of Campion's films, it is easier to describe Holy Smoke in terms of its scenario, rather than its plot. A young woman, Ruth (Kate Winslet), has been brought back home to Australia by her family under false pretenses from the ashram in India where she was living with a charismatic guru and a family of the enlightened. They are terrified that she's been brainwashed into a sex cult of some kind, and have hired at great expense an American "cult exiter", P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), to conduct a three-day intervention to try and save Ruth from whatever mind bug she's been implanted with. All that takes almost exactly the first thirty minutes of a 114 minute film; the rest of the running time amounts to a two-man show as Ruth and P.J. square off in an isolated hut deep in the Outback desert.
As straightforward as that seems to be, it's really not. One of the most difficult aspects of Holy Smoke is that it's really three movies: the first is roughly the first quarter, the second is the next hour, and the third is the last quarter. And when I call it "fun", I'm really just referring to the first quarter, which is one of those "all Australian families are deranged" comedies that crop up so frequently, although it's not for its somewhat hackneyed comic tropes that it's worthwhile, but the crazy style that Campion uses to breathe life into a form that had long since passed into cliché by 1999. On the one hand there are warped musical cues (two Neil Diamond songs!), on the other there are playful, left-field visual quirks such as the hyper-saturated flashback in which we see Ruth's first encounter with her guru, replete with a cartoony depiction of her third eye opening. It reads as equal parts parody and homage to the breed of kinetic indie films that were just coming into their own in the '90s and have since become ubiquitous. In particular, certain elements are redolent of Quentin Tarantino's brand of everything-flavor cinema: P.J.'s introduction especially, set to "I Am... I Said", and featuring unmistakably Tarantinoesque shots of him with his supercool shades, and a close-up of his feet in cowboy boots.
Insofar as Campion dabbles in this kind of highly glitzy, style-above-all aesthetic, it's only to cut the legs out from underneath it in the subsequent 90 minutes. Once P.J. and Ruth enter that hut, Holy Smoke abandons this particular tone for another, equally stylised, equally playful, and equally inventive; but where the first thirty minutes are effectively Campion's riff on the decidedly masculine idiom of Tarantino and (by extension) the New Wave, the rest of the film is unmistakably feminine - the most feminine of all Campion's films, and when I say "feminine" I do not wish to suggest some kind of value judgment. That simply is the manner of the film: a work about gender relationships that could only have been produced by a woman. Of course, all of Campion's films are unmistakably the work of a woman; but Holy Smoke manages to trump them all, I think, for while it's possible to imagine how The Piano might have turned out with a particularly perceptive male behind the camera, I really can't imagine a man attempting to make Holy Smoke in anything like its present form.
The conflict, reduced to its crudest terms, looks like this: Ruth has spent her life without an identity, and in India she formed on. P.J. has been called in to dismantle that identity and replace it with one more suitable. A strict feminist reading would identify P.J. as the representative of all male authority, attempting to restrict a woman's right to determine who she is. Ay, but Holy Smoke is not dogmatically feminist. Certainly, masculinity is given a rough go in the film, but Ruth is hardly given a free pass; her newfound spirituality turns out to be fairly shallow, when all is said and done. At one point, P.J. calls her out on using the patriarchal religion of India as a crutch to define herself, and her defense is that at least the Indians are honest about their misogyny, a lame excuse that she can't possibly believe any more than we do.
Still, there's plenty here to call traditional masculinity into serious doubt, and I can't imagine a male viewer not getting at least a little bit nervous at parts of the film. As the owner of a penis myself, I can't lie about that. P.J. isn't set up as the representative of all male authority, but it is his faith in his authority and his masculinity that cause him great trouble, when he very foolishly chooses to sleep with Ruth on the night of her great emotional breakthrough, after she cries about how scared and lonely she is. The next day, he rationalises this as a misplaced act of comfort; she claims that she faked the whole thing. We are not given any reason to believe or doubt either one of them, but the point is the same either way: Ruth has begun to exercise control over the situation, taking it away from P.J. - he resists, but less and less as time goes on, and by the end of the film he has allowed her to destroy his identity and his gender, putting lipstick on him and making him wear a dress. It's in this state that he reaches the ultimate depths of his pathos, hallucinating that he sees Ruth in the sun (a neat inversion of a shot early in the film, when he lights a candle and the flame completely obscures her face from the camera's POV), and asking her to take him to her guru.
It's for this third-act shift that I'm largely unwilling to call Holy Smoke a feminist film; rather, I'd call it humanist. The more power Ruth takes back for herself, the more she abuses it, and she can only grow in her own self-identity by depriving P.J. of his. The key scene of the film is one of the very few that has nothing to do with gender at all: P.J. writes the words "BE KIND" on Ruth's forehead, backward, so that she can read it in the mirror. When she sees this, it breaks her - the one thing she fears above all else is the thought that she is not a good person. And "BE KIND" is the ultimate message of the film, as shown by the very odd and at first blush very contrived final scene: it seems at first that Campion is letting P.J. get away with doing some very terrible things, and certainly there's no way to square the last moments with the notion that this is a political tract. But, of course, it's Campion practicing as she preaches: BE KIND. Forgive people for making mistakes, because everyone does it, pretty much constantly. That's the only religion any of us needs, and for Campion, the great crime of masculine-feminine warfare is that we're just not kind enough to each other. BE KIND - the rest will follow.
I went down that rabbit hole further than I meant to. Forgive me.
Holy Smoke represented a definitive split from the previous decade of Campion's career. For the first time in exactly ten years, she made a film in Australia, set in the present day, heavily concerned with family dynamics and the ways that families can misunderstand and destroy each other (there are so many ways that Holy Smoke feels like a Bizarro World companion piece to Sweetie; perhaps significantly, Holy Smoke was co-written by Campion's sister Anna, the dedicatee of Sweetie), and not shot by Stuart Dryburgh. This last point might seem to be the one of these things that doesn't belong, but it's actually quite significant: there's a visual unity to the three Dryburgh films that is shockingly violated by Holy Smoke. Shot by Dion Beebe in what I daresay is his best work ever, this is a boldly colorful film that returns us to the queasy depth-of-field experiments that Campion played with in most of her earliest shorts and features, and if we can loosely call the Dryburgh films "poetically realistic", well, there's not a damn thing real about Holy Smoke at all: the red, red desert with the blue, blue sky looks like something out a fever dream, and the way that this landscape dominates the film's mise en scène gives an Impressionistic cast to the whole thing. Like Sweetie, this film just doesn't look right - not natural, I mean - so it's hardly surprising that the characters end up destroying themselves a little bit in the face of it all.
It wouldn't do to avoid mentioning the two leads, who both give tremendously brave performances that are among their best. As one of the few Campion films with two distinct protagonists (and the only one with a male protagonist at all), it wouldn't do to try and decide that Winslet is better than Keitel, or vice versa; both of them push themselves to extreme, sometimes frightening places, and even when Winslet's accent drops, it's hardly distracting given what is happening to her character at the time. Since this is basically an extended dialogue with a handful of other characters every now and then, it needs them to both be extremely strong, persuasive, and invisible; and both actors treat their parts with the utmost honor and gravity.
I will not pretend ignorance as to why this film has such a low reputation: it does not ask you to like it, and if you are a man it's probably trying to make you uncomfortable. But I do find myself more than a little disappointed that so few people saw fit to follow Campion down this path; the film is not absolutely perfect but that's hardly a crime, and it is a profoundly generous treatise on how men and women misunderstand and torment one another. By this point, I've had to give up on some of the themes I was trying to track down in Campion's career, but I think I've come up with one that fits in every situation: she is full of love for her characters, and unwilling to punish anyone whose crime is mere humanity. That love informs every inch of Holy Smoke, even if she takes us to some very dark places before we can recognise it.