Holy Smoke

I usually give unconventional movies the benefit of the doubt, sometimes for far longer than they deserve. But there’s a fine line between idiosyncratic and stupid, and Holy Smoke crosses it and never comes back. It’s not your ordinary bad movie; the director, Jane Campion (The Piano), never makes ordinary movies, whether bad or good. But neither can Holy Smoke really be called extraordinary. It keeps flirting with comedy; it flirts with seriousness as well. Eventually, one grows weary of the movie coyly batting its eyelashes at one tone or another.

Campion first worked this material into a novel, written with her sister Anna (herself a director; her obscure movie Loaded may have influenced The Blair Witch Project). It’s entirely possible that Holy Smoke should have remained a novel, where its exchanges of ideas and dabblings in absurdity might have been more palatable. In any event, there’s not much story here to power a novel or a film. The heroine is Ruth (Kate Winslet), a lost soul who’s fallen into a cult during a visit to India. Her parents connive to lure her back home, where she will be deprogrammed by an “exit advisor,” the legendary P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), who promises to have her mind back safe and sound within three days.

Campion isn’t terribly interested in the actual mechanics of deprogramming, which has been handled before in such intense early-’80s dramas as Ticket to Heaven and Split Image (the latter of which boasted James Woods as the snarling exit advisor). She’s taken with the idea of deprogramming as a metaphor — for the battle of the sexes, for the paradox of relinquishing one form of control for another, even for romance. The over-confident Waters doesn’t have to work too hard to crack Ruth’s devotion to her guru — it seems all he really has to do is show her a videotape and she’s burning her ceremonial garb the next day.

The movie is really about what happens when Ruth turns the tables on Waters — subjects him to her own brand of deprogramming, in which she forces him to question his masculinity, his sexual power, his very core of self-worth. Reading this, you may think Holy Smoke sounds interesting, and writing it, I’m tempted to go easy on the film. Campion does give you a lot to chew on; the trouble is, she doesn’t give you anything to wash it down with afterward. Her movies can mean anything or nothing; they feel half-realized, half locked up in her head. You feel you’d have to be one of the Campion sisters to fully decode the film. And there doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify the mental gymnastics of interpretation.

Campion remains a gifted pure filmmaker. She has an unerring visual sense — a sense of what catches and seduces the eye, what makes a movie move — and she creates moments here that feel indescribably right. Neil Diamond, for instance, is recruited on the soundtrack not once but twice; his melodramatic “I Am, I Said” is blaring when we first meet Waters, who demonstrates his machismo by dislodging a luggage cart at the airport. It’s an unreasonably funny moment, bordering on prankish, and yet Harvey Keitel has seldom had a cooler introduction. It’s a scene Quentin Tarantino would be proud to have thought of.

Keitel keeps his cool until the climax, when Ruth turns him into his sex slave and makes him wear lipstick and a dainty red cocktail dress; he loses his mind, and so does the movie. We get the point, but a movie by its very nature literalizes whatever it shows us, so what we see is not Man giving up his devotion to the cult of machismo, but just Harvey Keitel grovelling in a dress.¹ Holy Smoke is worth a look for Kate Winslet’s head-first performance — she just dives right in, fearlessly, no matter how ludicrous the scene is; Keitel, no wallflower himself, matches her. They get an intriguing, erotic rhythm going. But what they say to each other mostly sounds like feminist platitudes circa 1972, even though the movie is set in the present.

Jane Campion is busily dismantling gender myths that few people take seriously any more. By exalting spiritual female power at the expense of pathetic male power, though, she continues to make herself part of the problem: True feminism is about equality, not one gender’s moral superiority to the other.

¹In recent years, Winslet has relished — perhaps too much — telling the story of the goat-singer Keitel insisting on acting like a dog during rehearsals. I don’t care, man. Keitel is a mystic, there’s only one of him, and when he brings it, it stays fuckin’ brought.

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