Friday December 3, 1999
"Holy Smoke," a high-risk, darkly comic triumph, is the most unabashedly outrageous movie Jane Campion has made since her debut, "Sweetie," a decade ago. Like that film's heroine "Holy Smoke's" Ruth is at intense odds with her crass working-class family. But whereas "Sweetie's" lead character was mentally unbalanced, seriously overweight and truly grating, Ruth (Kate Winslet) is beautiful, intelligent and quite endearing.
Ruth has fled the Sydney suburb Sans Souci, a tract of virtually identical red-brick bungalows, for the dense, picturesque squalor of Delhi, where she is captivated by a local guru. Her horrified friend Prue (Samantha Murray) rushes home to tell Ruth's family what's happened to her. Ruth's sweet but dim mother (Julie Hamilton) rushes off to India to retrieve her, telling her that her father (Tim Robertson) is at death's door.
A blissed-out Ruth responds that maybe she'll see him "in another life." An authentic panic attack on the part of her mother jolts Ruth into returning with her to Sydney, where, expense-be-damned, America's most successful cult deprogrammer, PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), awaits Ruth to put her through his proven ritual of winning her respect only to break her down, culminating in a teary reunion with family. You know from the get-go that Ruth's deprogramming is not going to go according to plan.
Written with Campion's filmmaker sister Anna, "Holy Smoke" begins as a satire of the whole guru trip but moves swiftly to a bold struggle of a man and a woman to break through all the conventions that restrict a possible relationship between them. Before Ruth and PJ arrive at this main event she is subjected to a torrent of outrages by her well-meaning, male-dominated family.
There's no evidence to suggest that there is anything at all unscrupulous or exploitative about Ruth's particular guru; in fact he's given her a sense of being in harmony with herself and the universe. Nor is there anything zombie-like or deranged about her. She is perfectly capable of intelligent discussion of her spiritual enlightenment--which is taken by her profoundly unsophisticated relatives as but further proof of how thoroughly brainwashed she has become.
Arriving in black cowboy gear, complete with boots and jet-black dyed hair and mustache, PJ looks for the world like the archetypal aging country-and-western singing star. PJ is Ruth's dad and brothers and their macho pals' kind of guy--even her gay brother Tim (Paul Goddard) and his lover join in this male solidarity as they encircle Ruth as if she were a cow to be branded.
PJ boasts of the 189 successful deprogrammings as Ruth is in effect taken prisoner by her own kin to be transported to an isolated cabin in the outback where PJ is to do his stuff. In the meantime, Ruth's sultry sister-in-law (Sophie Lee) has been coming on to PJ while confessing to him that when her husband (Dan Wylie) is making selfish, uninspired love to her she imagines she's with Brad Pitt and other screen idols.
PJ, however, has his work cut out for him with Ruth. Fueled by understandable outrage at such barbaric treatment, Ruth is smart and forthright, quite up to sparring with PJ on intellectual and spiritual levels. Ruth is also young, radiantly beautiful, statuesque in her glowing abundance; the cumulative impact of all these qualities upon PJ is understandably dizzying and, not surprisingly, ultimately and profoundly seductive. Ruth's war on PJ's machismo, much to his surprise, is liberating in its effect, and he has the curiosity to go wherever she wants to take him. But what of the emotional consequences of this love-hate power struggle? How do men and women escape power playing? How do they break down the walls of gender without destroying each other?
Campion is, of course, a feminist. But like her fellow director Catherine Breillat ("Romance"), her feminism reaches the level of an all-embracing humanism, and in "Holy Smoke" she and her sister Anna realize fully what women's lib can cost men.
With its smart, tart use of pop music past and present incorporated in Angelo Badalamenti's glorious score, their film traverses a tremendous range of emotional terrain, and they've got just the actors--including the ever-majestic Pam Grier as PJ's belatedly arriving assistant--to go the distance.
"Titanic" has not diverted Winslet from taking risks, and it's not easy to imagine a young actress who could so convincingly hold her own on all levels with a formidable, endlessly resourceful pro like Keitel. Thank goodness for filmmakers like Abel Ferrera ("Bad Lieutenant") and Campion, who can inspire Keitel--Campion first directed the actor in 1993's "The Piano"--to hold nothing back. As in "The Piano," Campion presents Keitel as a sex object without that view limiting or demeaning him; indeed, she celebrates his enduring masculine appeal even as he grows older and less physically appealing.
At once hilarious and serious, cruel and tender, and bristling with vitality, "Holy Smoke" is the right movie for the millennium, envisioning new possibilities in the way people view and relate to one another.
Holy Smoke, 1999. R, for strong language and sexuality. A Miramax Films presentation. Director Jane Campion. Producer Jan Chapman. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Julie Goldstein. Screenplay Anna Campion & Jane Campion. Cinematographer Dion Beebe. Editor Veronika Jenet. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Production designer Janet Patterson. Art director Tony Campbell. Set decorators Rebecca Cohen, Lisa Thompson. 2nd unit director-cinematographer Jackie Farkas. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. John Malkovich as The Director. Kim Rossi Stuart as Silvano. Ines Sastre as Carmen. Sophie Marceau as Girl. Fanny Ardant as Patricia. Peter Weller as Husband. Chiara Caselli as Mistress. Irene Jacob as Girl. Vincent Perez as Boy. Jean Reno as Carlo. Marcello Mastroianni as Painter. Jeanne Moreau as Friend. Kate Winslet as Ruth Barron. Harvey Keitel as PJ Waters. Pam Grier as Carol. Julie Hamilton as Miriam Barron.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun