Holy Smoke (1999)

by F. L. Carr


Holy Disappointment!

In Holy Smoke, Australian writer-director Jane Campion returns to a familiar theme. Once again, she’s looking at a strong-willed, unconventional woman who is at odds with, and nearly driven mad by, restrictive social expectations concerning her “appropriate” behavior.

Campion first demonstrated her interest in the topic in two films about more or less “modern” women, Sweetie (1989) and An Angel at My Table (1990); she then developed it in the more or less period pieces, The Piano (1993) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996). In a world that favors movies centered on men, Campion offers rare and gutsy explorations of sexual politics and female sexuality, especially as these are understood and misunderstood in the mainstream.

cover art

Holy Smoke

Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Julie Hamilton, Tim Robertson, Sophie Lee, Dan Wyllie, Paul Goddard


Because this perspective is so exceptional, and because she probes it so successfully in her previous work, it is a particular disappointment that her new film, co-written with her filmmaker sister, Anna Campion, ends up reaffirming a troubling and prosaic notion, namely, that women can gain — or at least perform — power through their youth and sexuality. In this way, Holy Smoke rehearses, but does not expand on, what would seem to be Jane Campion’s favorite topic, the struggles between men and women that come to define “sexual politics.”

The movie sets up this drama with a brief series of scenes in which Ruth (Kate Winslet), a young Australian woman, travels in India, meets a guru, and becomes enlightened (literally, she seems to glow with a yellowish light when the guru touches her forehead during an introductory gathering). Her family hears of this turn of events through Ruth’s astonished best friend, and they quickly act on the belief that she’s been brainwashed, hiring (for $10,000) an expert “exit counselor” from the U.S. named P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel). Always dressed in black, seemingly self- assured, and occasionally imperious, he instructs them to lure Ruth to an isolated hut in the Australian outback, where he proceeds to hold her captive for three days, the usual duration of such “treatment.”

With this, the film establishes Ruth’s captivity so that it is quite unlike that of Campion’s other heroines, who grow up in social and political environments that restrict their opportunities. Instead, Holy Smoke shows that Ruth’s upbringing has been fairly liberal, not to say lax, and that her sudden betrayal by her family — especially her confused and good-hearted Mum (Julie Hamilton) — is more than a little startling for the girl. More important, however, is the fact that Ruth’s confinement by P.J. illustrates in graphic terms the vulnerable position she faces as a woman. Until she meets him, she has been allowed some freedom (to travel to India, for instance), but when she strays too far, she is returned forcibly to an anxious family that becomes increasingly oppressive.

The film meditates on this idea of Ruth’s capture and restriction many ways. It does so visually, by showing her encircled by a band of male relatives who form a kind of living wall around her as they herd towards the waiting P.J., at the beginning of her treatment. The camera angles create an image so menacing (as we see the men from her perspective) that it insinuates an imminent gang-rape. At this moment, the connection between Ruth’s imprisonment and her gender seems inescapable.

The film goes on to underline this connection when it reveals differences between Ruth’s treatment by her family and their more generous attitude toward her gay brother, Tim (Paul Goddard), who is consistently warmly received and looked to for guidance. As well, Tim’s boyfriend seems to be considered part of the family, as he’s allowed to be present during at least one painful deprogramming session. Moreover, during the emotionally wrenching crisis that constitutes Ruth’s “treatment,” Tim and his boyfriend show up one evening inexplicably, in order to take her and other siblings to a local gay bar. The scene there is dark and wild; everyone is drinking and dancing with some abandon and no one seems to think this behavior is excessive. But Ruth’s spiritual excesses are undeniably threatening. Both Ruth and Tim would seem to be rejecting some basic tenets of “normal” society, yet only she is punished for doing so.

While the film’s exposure and questioning of Ruth’s treatment compared to her brother’s are clear enough, other aspects of it are more ambiguous. Holy Smoke repeatedly rushes through enigmatic images and complex concepts. Key scenes are too brief, as if they mean to pack in multiple plot developments that might have occurred over several scenes. For example, when Ruth appears to be going mad for a moment, burning her sari and fleeing from the hut — across the desert late one night — the scene unfolds so quickly and the visuals are so sketchy, that it is unclear whether she is truly breaking down mentally or carefully setting the stage for a vengeful seduction of her captor, P.J.

And when P.J. appears to succumb to her — as the naked Ruth kisses him insistently — this shift in his character also occurs so suddenly that it’s hard to tell whether she is tempting him or he is eager for an excuse to have sex with her (or whether he’s experiencing both responses at once). The film is in such a hurry at what would appear to be crucial points, that it doesn’t portray the potential intricacies of Ruth and P.J.‘s strangely evolving power dynamic. Perhaps this speed is meant to convey their mutual passion, as it tears them apart and forces them together, but it also imparts a sense of superficiality regarding their spiritual and sensual investigations. Because the film doesn’t provide many details of their relationship, it doesn’t extend Campion’s previous representations of an abstract or specific sexual politics. Rather, it seems to be fixed on the battle as a trope.

The most conspicuous canvas for this is Ruth’s fight — with herself, her family, and P.J. — to regain her intellectual and physical freedom. Most often, her fight takes shape through her sexual interactions with P.J. As in the relationship between Ada and Baines in The Piano, a man with power controls something a woman desperately needs. Ada hopes to regain her precious piano, and, Ruth, her freedom and self-confidence. And for each woman, it is a sexual relationship that grants her a modicum of power. Ada uses it to reclaim her piano, and then, literally, her voice; from there she is able to leave an emotionally stifling marriage, select her own partner (who is also played by Keitel), and live in the wilderness in order to raise her daughter in a place that offers some hope of freedom. Ruth also uses her sexual power to undermine her jailer and free herself, but in the end it is unclear what she gains from this difficult process.

It is also uncertain how their encounter influences P.J. In an earlier scene where Ruth’s sister-in-law Yvonne (Sophie Lee) gives P.J. a blowjob, his casual acceptance of it implies that he isn’t just insensitive about sex — he is an icy bastard, exploiting a situation where a family is genuinely divided and upset over a perceived threat to one of its members. Yvonne is only acting out a desperation that everyone seems to feel. But when P.J. gives in to his own moral weakness as well as to his desire for the young and obviously alluring Ruth, he seems to abandon his previous cold rationality, even his instrumental use of women for sex. By suggesting that P.J. is stripping away his old self and opening himself up to a new experience, the film works to create sympathy for him: his tears do seem real. But then, when Ruth tries to escape, he punches her in the face. This could mean that the movie is questioning the depth of his conversion, or it may be suggesting that he cannot manage his simultaneous devotion to her and need to possess her.

If the point is to prove how deeply in love P.J. is with Ruth, then it is significant that this “love” is expressed through violence. Indeed, it is the film’s most disturbing aspect. P.J.‘s sexual liaison with Ruth — in itself an obvious and profound ethical violation — is twisted into his “growth experience,” perhaps exemplified by his vision of her as a multi-armed Indian goddess. Again, P.J.‘s hallucination here seems less like an abdication of power, than a craze induced by Ruth’s rejection of him. Or it could be that he is redeemed by her pity: after all, the name “Ruth” means mercy. But the film doesn’t make it easy to read his or her recovery, or whether salvation is even possible in this world.

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