Given the overwhelming success of Jane Campion’s latest movie, The Power of the Dog, which through its world-wide Netflix release managed to find its way into the mainstream and earn 12 Oscar nominations, I decided to look back on what is arguably Campion’s least known work, Holy Smoke; a real oddity in a director’s filmography that is far from conventional, a movie that perhaps even Campion herself struggles to comprehend to this day.
After all, what kind of mad wizard do you have to be to follow up two critically acclaimed period pieces in the form of Piano and The Portrait of a Lady with a story set in contemporary Australia about a young woman (Kate Winslet) falling under the spell of an Indian guru and the man (Harvey Keitel) her family hires to break her free from the cult following? Only Campion (and her sister working as a co-screenwriter) could come up with a surreal comedy that is simultaneously a thriller and an extensive break-down of brainwashing, the male gaze, the myth of the white savior and most importantly, contemporary power dynamics between men and women.
Set in the Australian Outback, Holy Smoke follows the deconstruction of two people, two polar opposites.
Winslet’s character of Ruth is a young, vibrant person who goes soul-searching in India. Her life is based on instinctive decisions. Her vision of the world matches the vision of a privileged white person who finds meaning in places where people cannot afford a meal. In her own blissful ignorance, Ruth is the opposite of PJ (Keitel’s character). The American cult deprogrammer is a master manipulator, an aging, self-assured mustached asshole with a passion for deprogramming young women. The kind of man who, when accused by Ruth of being a misogynist, replies, “I don’t hate women, I love ladies!”
PJ stands for everything that is wrong with the world according to Ruth. He’s a show-off, and someone who seems incapable of empathizing with other people. The ones he’s supposed to help he labels as cases. Ruth is his case #190.
Campion begins Holy Smoke with a rather obvious and quite aggressive critique of modern family structures. Ruth’s family, for one, is a combination of low IQ, testosterone, bodily fluids and just plain ignorance. Once they hear of Ruth falling under the spell of a guru in a far-away country, their first instinct is to bring her home and force her back into the ‘family cage.’ Their world-view is limited to an evening spent lounging on the sofa in front of the TV with a can of beer and some Cheetos (Campion even goes as far as inserting a sheep as a house pet!).
The most sincere individual among this group of lunatics is Ruth’s mother – a down-to-earth person with her daughter’s safety at heart. She is the one who decides to fly all the way to India to bring Ruth home. But ultimately, even the loving mother stands for a lot of what is wrong with contemporary society.
Her behavior in India is racist, with a clear disdain for a particular way of life that is foreign to her standards. She is incapable of recognizing the glaring misery and the long-standing forms of oppression that affect part of India’s population. After fainting in the middle of the street and being brought to the airport by emergency services, the only thing she’s able to say is, “Thank God it’s Qantas!”
Ultimately, Campion leads us to believe that cults and brainwashing aren’t all too distant from the typical families we tend to encounter in our day-to-day lives.
Yet, the showdown between Ruth and PJ – as the young woman is lured back to her home and then sent out into the middle of nowhere to follow a three-day ‘mind-cleansing’ programme with the American expert – is what makes Holy Smoke a truly fascinating experience. Staged like a Western in a desolate landscape filled with sand, rocky patches and barbed wire, the three-day course begins with PJ lecturing Ruth on how to be a ‘proper’ woman. For PJ, everything is logical. Everything follows a pattern, which in turn helps him ‘solve’ his cases. Like a guru, he casts a ‘spell’ of logic over the clients he’s working with, and boom! Case solved.
But the same methods do not apply to Ruth, who sees through PJ’s bullshit and calls him out on it. Because as co-screenwriter Anna Campion said, “Ruth’s spiritual experience is emotional, not intellectual.”
Where PJ is blind, Ruth can see. She sees that beneath all the layers of machismo, bravado and arrogance lies a very insecure man whose fears and frustrations are projected onto his clients. And thus, the three-day programme begins to derail.
The battle between the two sexes isn’t as obvious as we might think. PJ is not evil because of his manipulative methods, just as Ruth isn’t a saint because of her young age. Winslet’s character is still shown as a vulnerable and naïve white girl whose experience in an exotic and far-away land amounts to just a lot of empty words. A lot of smoke, you might say.
PJ, on the other hand, is a man of reason who, according to Campion, “has thought a lot of these things through.” He’s already made his opinion, and is convinced of the path that he’s on. Or is he? At first, he figures Ruth for a spoiled brat whose existence is one big question mark. Yet, soon enough he realizes that Ruth has many of the things that he’s always wished he could have: youth, beauty, sensitivity and honesty. Ruth doesn’t think things through. She accepts whatever comes her way. Unlike him, she doesn’t want to own and trap other people’s beliefs and feelings. For Ruth, the universe is not defined by a set of ancient rules.
The balance of power continuously shifts as Holy Smoke progresses with PJ being unable to predict his client’s next step. Eventually, the differences in philosophy and attitude culminate, like in most of Campion’s work, in sex. Sex that once again is used as a weapon before turning into an act of comfort in the face of the desolate lives the two protagonists lead.
Keitel’s performance is an incredibly brave one, as the veteran actor is willing to often be the butt of the joke, and expose himself emotionally perhaps even more than his younger co-star.
Unlike Piano – where Keitel’s brutish and imposing figure was used to convey a certain kind of masculinity with the potential to be kind and tender – Holy Smoke turns his features upside down, making him the object of control. Whereas his character in Piano was a man of action, here Keitel plays a man of words who, when confronted with real, contrasting feelings, ends up becoming speechless, willing to be manipulated for the sake of feeling something, anything. His frustration with Ruth’s belief system and outlook on life turns into envy. With regret in his voice he says, “I was young once, too, and handsome. You’d have been impressed.“
The characters’ incompatibility is what eventually draws them closer to each other. It’s a twisted game that in Campion’s hands makes sense.
Campion’s fascination with power dynamics is well known by now and her latest feature, The Power of the Dog, is arguably her most straight-forward exploration of masculinity and the vulnerability that comes with it. Her characters are often subjected to all kinds of humiliation and alienation; misfits who hardly belong anywhere in the real world, often pushed out to the margins of society both physically and spiritually. Their wounds and traumas so deeply buried within them that they can hardly relate to anyone else. Finding comfort in each other, misfit to misfit, is sometimes the only thing preventing them from total self-destruction.
Despite being one of Campion’s least recognized films (for obvious reasons), Holy Smoke is quite possibly her grandest work, encapsulating everything that interests the Kiwi filmmaker and more. It is a film that pushes the boundaries of narrative storytelling and never settles for clear-cut answers. It is a comedy, a thriller, a social critique and an all-around acid-trip set in the Australian outback. It’s a story of two people finding whatever meaning there is left to find in each other. Their hatred and love for each other are interchangeable. Then again, in Campion’s universe it makes perfect sense.