Hey folks, Harry here with a peekaboo from Moriarty, that degenerate old evil dude in that Lab beneath that Fault in California, on HOLY SMOKE. As you my remember from Lynn Bracken's review, his hands were on her more than the popcorn, but still... I think he has given a fair review of Lynn's... I mean HOLY SMOKE. So without further barnfarkling from me, let's get on with the evil genius...
Hey, Head Geek...
Well, it's been a busy month, but we're finally wrapping up those long-term projects that forced me to take much of last month off from my work here at AICN. That's not to say I haven't slipped in a couple of assignments here and there. For example, I accompanied the charming Lynn Bracken to a showing of HOLY SMOKE just last week, her account of which I forwarded to you already. Since the film's opening for its limited run in Los Angeles and New York today, the 3rd, I wanted to jump in and share my feelings on it with you.
I admire Jane Campion. I really do. I think she's a brave filmmaker, a personal filmmaker with a unique voice and a singular vision. I think much like I think of David Lynch... they each make the films they make because there's no other type of film they could make. Jane Campion couldn't bury her trademarked interests and style in a mainstream picture if she tried, and that's to be admired in a world where art is so frequently sold out, homogenized.
But with ambition can come failure, and Jane's proven that before. In my opinion, PORTRAIT OF A LADY is one of the most horrendously painful films I've ever had the misfortune of witnessing. I didn't just watch the film... I suffered it. I endured it. I was, in the end, beaten by it. That crushing disappointment was due in large part to my esteem for ANGEL AT MY TABLE, SWEETIE, and THE PIANO, all of which I consider masterful, transporting, astonishing to different degrees. When I walked into HOLY SMOKE, I was open for whatever experience might be ahead, hoping it was Campion with her wings fully spread again.
I think HOLY SMOKE is, in the end, a lesser effort from the filmmaker, but it's one that is crammed with ideas that are interesting, intriguing, teasing, sexy, and smart. In many ways, the film is too full of ideas. Jane co-wrote the film with her sister and occasional collaborator Anna, and there's a breathless sense to it, as if they were both so eager to get all these cool things into the film that they didn't ever stop to make sense of any of them. There's no finesse, no subtelty, no time for us to get swept up in the goings-on.
It starts well. In fact, it starts very well. I'd say that if you showed the first two or three reels of the film to anyone, they'd be up for the rest of it. Nothing ever matches that persuasive crazed inventiveness, though. We start with a girl, Ruth (Kate Winslet), on a bus. She's going somewhere. She's surrounded by people. It's just her face that holds us, and it's a seductive start. I hate to use words like this, because there's no way to use them without sounding hackneyed, but Winslet is radiant in the film, lit from within, and seems possessed of secrets at every turn. She goes to see a guru with a friend while they're on vacation in India, and she is enlightened. Something inside of her responds on a primal level, and Ruth decides to stay. The way Campion shoots the sequence, the rapture that she paints the frame with, convinces us as well. Ruth's right to stay. It's beautiful.
When her parents Miriam (Julie Hamilton) and Gilbert (Tim Robertson) find out about what she's done, they are devastated, convinced she's been brainwashed. Miriam becomes obssessed with getting Ruth back, and decides to fly to India, to lie to Ruth, to tell her that her father's dying -- whatever it takes. Again, Campion nails every moment of the mother's visit. We see India through her eyes, smell what she smells. It's squalid, filthy, terrifying, sad. Hamilton is heartbreaking in these early moments, setting a tone so real, so honest, that the later cartoonishness of many characters seems jarring. She can't convince Ruth with any argument, though, can't shake her daughter's alien new faith, and she flees. Her subsequent panic attack on the streets and hysterical collapse do what her reason couldn't; Ruth accompanies her mother back to Australia.
Meanwhile, her family has brought in PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), an American cult exiter, a deprogrammer. He's going to spend three days with Ruth at a remote shack and break her will, bring her back. He's supposedly a big deal, the best in the business, with Ruth being just number 190 in a long list of successes. Still, I wasn't convinced. There's nothing in Keitel's performance that suggests this guy would be any good at the job. In fact, he's loathesome from the moment he arrives, a stereotype of the middle-aged hustler, and I never believe that anyone would fall for his act. He sure doesn't strike me as any sort of master chess player, a verbal duellist of unmatched ability. He's just Keitel... a lout, a big bruise of a guy. One of Ruth's relatives, a sister-in-law named Yvonne (Sophie Lee), is practically throwing her panties at PJ from the moment he steps off the plane. In the press notes for the film, Lee talks about her character, giving a glimpse at how her behavior is caused by a reaction to having two children, to feeling trapped, and that's a valid choice. It's just that the Campions haven't written anything that would suggest any of that inner life to us, the audience.
That's actually one of my biggest overall complaints about the film. There's a big cast here of family members, all of them gathered and huddling and waiting on the fringe of Ruth's deprogramming. Dan Wyllie, Paul Goddard, George Mangos, Kerry Walker, Leslie Dayman, Simon Anderson... they all do everything they can to fill out this massive ensemble with quirks and little character touches, and it's admirable work in many ways. They're not characters, though, and they never really make any impression. They're types, all barking and reacting, and always doing exactly what they have to do in order to keep the film moving, moving, moving. Again, there's that relentless "Look at this and this and this and this" quality that keeps the viewer at a distance, never letting us in.
Once Ruth and PJ are alone, the film should kick into high gear. We're expecting a spirited debate here, a battle of willpowers, a TAMING OF THE SHREW meets LAST TANGO IN PARIS thing, and that seems to be what they're getting at with scene after scene of arguments that go nowhere. Ruth and PJ posture at each other, but they never engage. There's not one real conversation between them. They talk around things, artifice overwhelming many of their exchanges. There's a few nice touches, like when Ruth makes a "HELP" sign out of rocks that draws the attention of a plane, with PJ having no idea why the plane keeps buzzing them. It's a funny scene, and there's a great subtle power game that comes from her having a secret. There's moments where a few sparks fly, when there's a hint of chemistry. Campion keeps interrupting things, though, pulling us out of it to bring that giant family ensemble back at the worst moments.
One of the hallmarks of Campion's work is her attitudes towards sexuality. She's got specific ideas, and it's evident from the beginning of the film that this is a movie that's got sex on its mind just as much as the spirit, if not more. Yvonne eventually makes her pass at PJ, giving him a blowjob when she drops by some of Ruth's clothes in the middle of the night. Yvonne confesses to PJ that she uses photos of movie stars' faces to get off during sex with her husband. It's a funny scene, but I don't believe it for a second. Yvonne's a device. The only reason she sleeps with PJ is so that Kate can observe PJ and Yvonne together at a showing of a videotaped documentary on cults. Ruth sees them touching, puts it together even if no one else in the room does.
And here's where everything starts to really fall apart. The moment when Ruth finally surrenders to PJ sexually is undeniably arousing, but it's muddled, confusing, and Campion never clues us in to how much of a game Ruth is playing. Is her helpless, wilting, vulnerable nature an act, or is it the real Ruth? And if it is, then was the strength we've seen in every other sequence previously just an act? Because the Ruth of the film's second half and the Ruth of the film's first half aren't the same character. Not by a long shot. It just feels like what we're watching are notes, the rushed doodles of the Campions as they block out the kind of film they want to make. There's almost no subtext to anything. It's all right there where it can be seen by anyone. It's text, writ large.
By the end of the film, once Pam Grier's shown up and we've had lesbian bar dancing and a memorable golden shower and some unexpectedly ugly violence, I had sufferend one embarrassing laughing fit during an extended sequence involving Keitel in a skintight red dress, makeup, and one cowboy boot, and I was also fidgeting mightily. I was impatient for the film to end, a bad sign. This is one of those times when you just feel bad that it didn't work. Campion's gifted enough that she'll get her focus back with something, where it's the next film or the one after, but this is something I'd only recommend to hardcore fans of the director or anyone with a Kate Winslet fetish. Her nudity in the film isn't just brave... it's genuinely erotic. Her confidence is magnetic, and it's because of her that I never gave up on the film completely, but the talent on display in the first part of the movie ends up squandered, as if the film has given up on us.
Okay... I'm seeing a big (and I mean big in every sense) Christmas movie later today. I'll be telling you all about that and a dozen other things in RUMBLINGS FROM THE LAB on Tuesday morning. I'll also be talking about a special four-part series coming up in the last few weeks of the year. Until then...