Holy Smoke! manages to revisit some of the same themes as The Piano yet in a less cohesive film.
The Piano depicted a woman embracing herself, shortcomings and all, and refusing to live by the dictates of her husband. Jane Campion’s follow-up Holy Smoke!, co-written with her sister, Anna, tells the tale of a woman who has found herself through a spiritual awakening in India but faces opposition from her entire family, as well as the “de-programmer” hired to make her cut ties with the guru, Baba. Unlike Ava, Ruth (Kate Winslet) needs no further revelation to unearth long-suppressed desires or allow her to fully open herself to new experiences. She has already achieved this self-aware state. Rather, Ruth must defend her happiness and resist the relentless P.J. Walters (Harvey Keitel). Ruth is a welcome addition to Campion’s cast of strong-willed female protagonists, but Holy Smoke! devolves into heavy handed bouts between Ruth and P.J., which undermine its intriguing premise and ultimately make it a lesser Campion work that fails to balance its many strands.
The immediate highlight of Holy Smoke! is the cinematography by Dion Beebe. Recalling the expressive visuals of Sweetie, the oppressive heat of the Australian outback and the foreign, extravagantly colored streets of Delhi prove to be engrossing locations. These are enigmatic settings from which Campion draws inspiration and creates dynamic shots, but she has a tendency here to present Ruth’s story in a cartoonish way. Needless to say, this doesn’t serve her story well. The moment we see Ruth bond with Baba is depicted as a trippy, sun splotched mandala animation hardly respective of her supposed spiritual awakening. It makes it difficult to sympathize with a character when their unwavering position is based on a moment that seems much more like a joke. P.J.’s hallucination at the end of the film, after the surprising power shift that occurs, is perhaps even more cartoonish and ridiculous.
The family dynamic in Holy Smoke!, similar to that of Sweetie in its disorder and subsequent humor, gives the beginning of the film a tinge of delightfully wicked dark comedy. Their staged intervention brings Ruth back to Australia under false pretenses, and the image of their wrangling of the resistant Ruth is admittedly funny. Later, however, that is drowned out by much weightier events and themes, as explored when P.J. and Ruth are secluded in an old farm house for three days. While this session is meant to serve as a detox to counter Ruth’s supposed brainwashing, it is anything but. Keitel serves a similar role as he did in The Piano, his character captivated by the protagonist and drawing her into a sexual encounter. In the context of a de-programmer working with sensitive cult members, however, his actions are all the more suspect.
From Ruth’s perspective, her family cannot begin to understand her and would sooner believe that she had been compromised, either through brainwashing or hallucinogenic drugs. But rather than an exploration of religious beliefs, or even psychotropic drugs, Holy Smoke! takes a sharp right turn into an at times unremarkable battle of the sexes. From the moment he saunters through the Sydney airport, P.J. is depicted as a hubristic macho guy, and this persona clashes constantly with his role in assisting the compromised. Ruth, on the other hand, is your typical Campion protagonist whose steadfast belief demands sympathy from the audience. Her unwavering resistance piques P.J.’s interest – or perhaps it’s just her youth – but what he thinks is his questionable seduction of a client is in fact Ruth’s manipulative plan of escape. Closed away in the claustrophobic desert hut, they righteously debate, have intense sex and argue about motive for days. Ruth describes P.J. in classified ad terms as “old salivating slob seeks slim young thing” and she characterizes herself in his eyes as a “youthful pussy transfusion.”
While Ruth’s commitment rings true, despite questions as to her new spiritual beliefs, the Campion sisters fudge P.J.’s transformation. The final act plays like an intense fever dream, either brought on by the heat or spiritual hallucinations. Even though there are wildly hilarious sights (such as Keitel in drag) and heated arguments to keep viewers’ attention, the script does not provide clear cut motivations for the bizarre events and seemingly abrupt shifts in characters. Although the cult premise is highly unique, the heart of the film only addresses the relationship between Ruth and P.J., so much so that Holy Smoke! manages to revisit some of the same themes as The Piano yet in a less cohesive film.