Holy Smoke Holy Smoke directed by Jane Campion …

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



There’s always been
a strong literary component to Campion’s work, from her early lapidarian
shorts through the novelistic moods, conceits and (sometimes) sources of An
Angel at My Table
, Sweetie, The Piano and The Portrait
of a Lady
. She has also chosen wisely in the screenwriters who wrote or
collaborated with her on the scripts of these films. A lapse in such judgment
may be where the salient problems of Holy Smoke begin. It was coscripted
by Campion and her sister Anna, who’s previously known for a singularly
awful feature titled Loaded of a few years back.


The holes in the Campions’
new creation, however, belong to its latter sections; at first, we’re greeted
with a blast of Neil Diamond and a fictional premise that seems ideally suited
to Jane’s gifts. As Diamond’s "Holly Holy" booms magnificently
on the soundtrack–hope that the theater where you see it has the volume
cranked to 11–several young Westerners including Ruth (Kate Winslet) are
seen swaying to the movements of a rickety bus negotiating the streets of New
Delhi. This is the India of mystical beguilements, woozy with incense and credulity,
and obviously fun. Pretty soon, the kids are rocking out on a rooftop as the
sun sets, giddy with sensual self-abandonment and giving new meaning to the
term "Diamond Sutra."


Although it’s basically
a scene-setting backdrop to the opening credits, this passage is also the movie’s
most purely exultant moment, and, as such, deserves to be seen as crucial to
Campion’s creation. Her films often seem at war with intellectual overdetermination,
and communicate their most essential meanings through pure form, or the elements
of form that most easily supersede the mechanics of narrative: specific weaves
of music and light, compositional angles and editing rhythms. Seeing
is not believing, her films suggest, but quite the opposite. It is feeling,
overthrowing the tyranny of habitual, social rationality for the wisdom–the
enlightenment–of the senses.


Sure, Western kids in saris
dancing to Neil Diamond on a Delhi rooftop is a jeans-commercial’s idea
of transcendence. Yet it is an idea, and the way Campion does it here,
full of breathless bravado and deft choreographic precision, suggests that it
is not an entirely unworthy place to start. Yet, in terms of Holy Smoke,
it is also a premature stopping point. No sooner has Ruth settled into a mystical
groove in India than one of her gal pals gets the jitters, skips back to Sydney
and warns Ruth’s parents that she’s been snared by a manipulative
guru. Their panicked response, not surprisingly, involves an elaborate effort
to rescue her from something she doesn’t want to be rescued from. So long,
pop paradise.


In a way, the premise of
Holy Smoke reverses the trajectory of The Piano, in which the
heroine leaves behind straitlaced European ways and discovers a deeper sense
of self in a very foreign environment. Here, the heroine is dragged back from
her voyage of discovery almost as soon as it’s begun, returning from exotic
adventure to familiar absurdity. The film is Campion’s first excursion
into comedy since Sweetie, and her satiric barbs are sharp yet precise.
Thankfully avoiding the broad-stroke kitschiness that Muriel’s Wedding
and scads of other films made an overdone Aussie trademark, Holy Smoke
conjures up a suburban world–"Sans Souci," happily enough–whose
denizens are realistic enough to know that Ruth’s spiritual detour demands
serious action.


Her dowdy, concerned mom
(Julie Hamilton) goes to India, where, recoiling predictably from the flies
and poverty, she tells Ruth that her dad has suffered a stroke and may not make
it. Ruth demurs, but eventually Mom’s benign lie coaxes her back to Australia.
There, besides her not-at-all suffering dad (Tim Robertson), she’s met
with a team of would-be psychological rescuers that includes her empty-headed
surfer brother Robbie (Dan Wyllie) and his hot-to-trot wife Yvonne (Sophie Lee),
as well as their gay brother Tim (Paul Goddard) and his boyfriend Yani (George
Mangos). And leading the team is an import from abroad, P.J. Waters (Harvey
Keitel), supposedly America’s most successful cult deprogrammer, or, as
it’s called here, "exit counselor."


Entering the film to the
tune of Neil Diamond’s "I Am…I Said," suavely outfitted in
jeans, shades and shiny cowboy boots, P.J. is American macho expertise personified,
ready to rock and fully assured that he’s a match for any guru. He tells
his helpers his program requires three days, each one devoted to a different
step in breaking down the subject’s defenses. But when he first glimpses
Ruth, he opines that this one may only take 12 hours. Little does he know.


Much of Holy Smoke’s
appeal from the time P.J. and Ruth are left to their duel of wills, alone on
a remote Outback ranch, is due to its stars. Campion has always been extraordinarily
good with actors, and here she gets from Winslet a fiery yet controlled and
charismatic performance that’s as assured as anything you can see in a
current movie. Keitel, capable as ever, is a fine sparring partner for her,
aggressive yet strategically flexible and, on the subject of his dyed hair and
advancing age, inescapably vulnerable. At first, they go at it like worthy opponents,
searching out each other’s weak spots and looking to make contact.


Trouble is, the Campions’
script really doesn’t know where to take its two leads once they’ve
fully engaged and, of course, gone to bed. The faulty, uninspired third act
is a common problem in movies today, even some very good ones; the critics who
voted Being John Malkovich the year’s best film, for example, presumably
did so by overlooking that its last 15 minutes devolve into glib plot twists
and that most cliched dramatic cop-out of all, the chase scene. But here the
weakness suggests something more than a simple failure of invention (though
it’s that too): it shows Campion retreating ill-advisedly from her own
best instincts and surest insights.


Her previous movies have
insisted on the integrity of women’s subjective experience. So why not
at least entertain the notion that in India Ruth had a spiritual experience
worth defending? To be sure, there are sound reasons why many Western movies
resist speaking of spirituality and especially the inner traditions of other
cultures. Yet in foreclosing this avenue of dramatic exploration, Campion starts
off by, in effect, siding with Ruth’s family and all the narrow Western
rationalistic prejudices they represent. And that means denying her heroine
a self-determined inner life that, at least in part, can stand against all the
definitions imposed on her from without.


Given such choices, the
movie has no tenable destination other than the patterns (including predictable
reversals) of standard romantic comedy, and even there it falters; when Ruth
keeps harping on P.J.’s age, the tale becomes not only trite but tedious.
Yet despite all this, it ends up coming off as a surprisingly forceful and compelling
artistic vision, largely because of Campion’s masterful deployment of the
film’s formal elements.


For all her literary models
and psychological interests, Campion has always been primarily a visual storyteller;
each of her features offers an extremely distinct look that self-evidently conveys
its own set of meanings. Holy Smoke, a bright pipe dream of a movie,
is full of pastels and desert ochres, the warm, sculpting light of late afternoon
and the prismatic perspectives of a camera that sometimes seems to have its
own mind (Dion Beebe’s photography is exemplary). In other filmmakers,
such sterling images would be merely, if very effectively, decorative. In Campion,
they transmute rather than illustrate. If you want to know what happened to
Ruth’s inner life, they hint, don’t look to the film’s two-dimensional
dialogue. Look up on the screen, where the visual landscape does indeed summon
up the luminescence of imagination and belief.


Perhaps next time Campion’s
intelligence will lead her to a screenwriter who can more expertly turn a rich
premise into a fully fleshed drama. Still, Holy Smoke will remain among
her most fascinating and seductive films, if only because its flaws allow us
a strangely clear view of her vast and unusual gifts.



The Terrorist
directed by Santosh
Sivan

Speaking
of the integrity of women’s subjective experience: Though director Santosh
Sivan is a man, his captivating film The Terrorist almost seems like
the work of an Indian Jane Campion. I’ve seldom seen a film as relentlessly
interior as this portrait of a young female warrior on her way to assassinate
a political leader. Sivan (who was a renowned cinematographer before turning
director) seems not to know the meaning of "master shot." His camera
swirls sinuously from closeup to closeup, taking time out only for the occasional
evocative landscape or dreamy flashback. Along with the soundtrack’s constant
use of liquid noises and the breathing of its heroine, all this makes the film
feel like it takes place inside the head of a girl who’s been turned into
a prized killing machine.



Sivan also takes an original
tack in the way he paces his story. In its first third, which details the terrorist
background and training of Malli (the beautiful Ayeshi Dharkar) up to the point
where she’s given her assignment, the movie has a fevered, convulsive pace.
Western movies, of course, would only increase the momentum in the second act.
But The Terrorist detours into a strangely becalmed section where Malli
is entrusted to a haunted teenage guide named Lotus (Vishwas). Later still,
when you suppose that she’s about engage her explosives, she ends up biding
her time in a household where the wife has been in a staring trance for years.
What does the woman’s silently accusing gaze mean? Like a fine short story,
The Terrorist assumes an audience acquainted with subtle suggestion.


We don’t see that many
new Indian films in New York, and The Terrorist is the best I’ve
encountered in a while. Presented in the U.S. by John Malkovich, who discovered
it at the Cairo Film Festival and decided to help launch it internationally,
it’s another reason that cinephiles should pay attention to the new programming
direction at the Screening Room, which is giving downtown another venue for
premieres of noteworthy foreign and independent films.


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