Holy Smoke

Holy Smoke by Jane Campion is a movie whose most basic
assumptions—arising out of a weirdly anachronistic, 1970s-vintage view of
bourgeois life—makes it rather difficult to like. From the first glimpse she
gives us of “Sans Souci, Sydney,” an overhead shot of acres of tiled-roof
bungalows that bespeaks “suburbia,” we know that Miss Campion’s sympathies are
going to be with her heroine’s desire to get out of this middle-class hell-hole
and get in touch with something allegedly more authentic. This the heroine, Ruth
(Kate Winslet), does by going off to India and joining a cult. The plot of the
film hinges on her family’s efforts to bring her back to Australia and
“de-program” her with the expensively-obtained help of the American cult
“exiter” P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel).

Also from the start, the film sneers at Ruth’s family and friends. True to
the 70s spirit, they are all portrayed as boors and hypocrites whose lives are
empty of meaning. True, it is honest enough not to romanticize either the cult
Ruth joins or the Indian milieu, though it does pretty clearly regard India as
being somehow more authentic, if not more spiritual, than life in Australia.
Ruth’s Edith Bunker-like Mom (Julie Hamilton), on going to retrieve her by
falsely claiming that her father has had a stroke and may die, faints when
confronted with the raw, disgusting urgency of life on the edge of survival, as
it is lived among the poor of India. Taken home to Sydney on a stretcher, she
has only enough strength to cry out: “Thank God it’s Quantas!”

So maybe, Jane Campion is willing to acknowledge, Ruth’s joining a cult is
going a bit far. Oddly, the film never really explores this question. You’d
think it would have some interest in telling us just what the cult
believed and evaluating those beliefs. Instead, it is content to concede the
major tenet of the conventional and suburban view—that cults in general are bad
things, good things to be got out of, run by charlatans—while clinging to what
it can of the questing, “spiritual” predisposition that leads Ruth to the cult
in the first place. By the end, it has got her where it wants her: back in India
but out of the cult. Instead, she and mom both are working at some kind of
animal shelter. Spiritual enlightenment may be a chimera, but sentimentality
about animals is presumably the real deal. Typical liberal!

Also, Keitel’s P.J. Waters is an ambiguous character. On the one hand he is
right about the cults (presumably), but on the other hand he is vain, preening,
American and rather contemptible in his vulnerability to Ruth’s sexual assault
on his self-assurance. The real interest of the film is in its analysis of the
power-play between the two of them. Waters’s power over Ruth is intellectual,
chronological, physical, social (as he is the representative of her parents and
friends as well as of mainstream middle-class culture) and therefore political.
All this would seem to be overwhelming. Yet Ruth is able to sweep it all away
with the one weapon she has, her sexual power. In the penultimate scene, Waters
is the picture of a ruined man—beaten up, professionally discredited, wearing a
dress and lipstick and whimpering of the “love” for which he has sacrificed

This may seem just a little over the top, but it is certainly an interesting
“concept,” to use Hollywood language. The odd thing is that Miss Campion seems
to fight shy of the moral and political implications of what she has presented
us with. She tacks on a coda set “one year later” in which Waters and Ruth are
both pictured as settled into more-or-less respectable lives and relationships
with others while writing to each other of a lingering longing. It is a sort of
women’s romance ending. The political made personal.What lingers with us is
Ruth’s all-too ruthless destruction of Waters and his impotent and pathetic
protest: “Your physical superiority makes you unkind.”

For a moment, she allows Ruth to feel the prick of conscience: “In spite of
all my strong feelings, I’m heartless….No one can be close to me….Do you
even like me?” she asks. But we see no more evidence that this brief moment of
humility makes any real difference in her life than Waters’s humiliation seems
to have made in his. And this, at the risk of sounding incredibly “sexist,” is a
very feminine conclusion. Miss Campion, who will be 46 at her next birthday, has
taken out and looked honestly for a moment at the immense power nature has given
young women over men. But then she plops the little radioactive moment in her
purse and smartly snaps it shut. We’ll pretend we didn’t see that.

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