Holy Smoke
directed by Jane Campion
(Miramax, 1999)

Jane Campion is a strange director. There's The Piano, which was undoubtedly serious in tone, and then Sweetie, which wasn't. She tackles hefty issues with a dogged determination, and then promptly mocks those same issues in the same breath. One minute, you have a piece of high art, the next it's a piece of sequined MTV-music-video-type crap that's almost impossible to fathom is from the same director.

Holy Smoke is no different, and no less paradoxical. On one hand, the film starts with a story of Ruth Barron, a young Australian girl who gets sucked into an Indian cult when the Baba gives her a lifechanging touch. It's this beautiful piece of film. Then, suddenly, it's bisected with a 1970s-style drug-education-film-with-a-better-budget clip of Kate Winslett surrounded by technicolor lotus emerging around her head.

Let me just say right here and now, the film wouldn't have been injured if that shot had ended on the cutting room floor. Quite honestly, I wondered if Campion had some sort of special effects budget that she'd have lost if it wasn't used. ("Seriously, Jane. I'll give you an extra hundred thousand dollars if you add this scene....")

As if these types of shots (I believe there are three in the film) aren't distracting enough to the viewer, the story itself is a little ... well ... convoluted.

As I mentioned, it starts out plausibly enough. Winslett's character is lured home by her mother, and when she arrives, the family has hired P.J. Waters, a cult exit expert (played by Harvey Keitel) to help her disengage from the Baba's teachings. She agrees to three days with P.J., and is isolated.

Days one and two led me to believe that Holy Smoke would be one of those quaint art films, drug sequences aside.

Not so, says Campion, slamming a set of strange twists on day three that turn the movie from quaint into a circus. I'll leave most of it to your imagination or future viewing pleasure, but I will say that it involved a full-on frontal nudity shot of Winslett (and several minutes of her being naked by firelight), and eventually, Harvey Keitel gets laid. There's also this sort of twisted implication that when a woman pees on herself, it's sexy. Personally, I'd rather not examine this implication too closely.

Despite the rapid (possibly too rapid) spiralling of the plot into a mad disarray, I have to say that Campion ended it well. More of the special effects are involved, but they're less intrusive, and the story ties up neatly. Some of the images have stuck with me, and unfortunately, they're becoming a part of my subconscious and I'll never be rid of them. (Keitel's butt, for instance. shudder Some things are best left in shadow.)

It isn't necessarily a movie I'd recommend for my mother, but I might buy it on DVD to more closely examine some of Campion's whacko imagery. And to marvel at Winslett's willingness to do anything for a role. At times, her character is believable when the story isn't, and it's good to see that although Campion may have made deals with the devil on special effects budgets, she picked an amazing star for the lead. Her judgment isn't all bad.

Holy Smoke isn't on my list of top five favorite movies. It might be in the top twenty, though. Even now, an hour or so after the ending, I'm still wondering why that is. Surely the visuals are wonderful, and the attention Campion plays to detail is evident, and I'm sure there must be a boatload of symbolism in the picture that I just haven't had time to analyze or realize -- but that's not it.

It's one of those films that has something. Maybe, like Ruth was searching for, the film contains some of that universal truth I'm always ragging about.

Just don't expect it to change your life. I doubt Campion wants you moving to Australia to worship at an ashram with her icon on the altar.


[ by Elizabeth Badurina ]

Buy Holy Smoke from Amazon.com.