Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke! (1999) is an indie film about a determined, headstrong, woman named Ruth (Kate Winslet), who’s under the influence of a guru from India. It’s basically about her spiritual awakening and self discovery and not necessarily about “joining a cult”. However, her parents don’t see it as such, and freak out and hire a “cult exiter” named PJ (Harvey Keitel) to extract her mind from the power of Baba (the guru). Ruth tells her mother that something amazing has happened to her in that Baba’s magic has lead her to enlightenment which prompts her mother to take action.
There’s a lovely scene of Ruth just being herself, singing and dancing to an Alanis Morissette song on a walkmen as she’s striding among an emu farm in the middle of the outback. She’s full of life among her weary family members who believe she’s lost her damn mind. But, as this scene progresses and Ruth sees her father playing golf with other friends, the realization hits her that he wasn’t dying of a stroke and that her mother had lied to get her to come back home. Campion does a beautiful job of conveying this idea almost like capturing a wild creature and sending it off to be reevaluated, retrained, rewired for what society wants it to be. She uses this overhead shot, as the men in Ruth’s family trap her in a human made circle linking their arms together, preventing her escape. This shot conveys power the way it’s angled up high and in a way signifies or perhaps jostles the power in this patriarchal world letting the viewer know, who’s really in charge here. The men gathered around her (brothers, and father) tell her that PJ is going to get her, “fixed up” and that he’s going to, “straighten her out!” Of course from a place of love sure it makes sense but in a social context it’s kind of disturbing. From a philosophical standpoint, this reminds me of Michel Foucault theory addressed on the relationship of knowledge and power along with the influence of social control. Eventually, the entire premise of the narrative kind of backfires as PJ is trying to help Ruth, her own influence persuades PJ and reshapes his life. I love that Campion plays with the dynamic relationship between men and women.
There’s a scene in a club, where, “I put a spell on you” is playing and the look in PJ’s eyes as he’s watching Ruth dance and make out with a female friend all in slow motion definitely emphasizes the female gaze and how’s he’s losing his power over her. I believe, this is where the narrative shifts and Campion’s analysis on how women can disempower men. For instance, the scene where Ruth basically tells PJ how she likes to be kissed shaping it for her pleasure and not necessarily his. Or where Ruth dresses PJ in a red dress, with lipstick, and brushing his hair totally undressing him of his masculinity which shifts the power dynamic. Its not necessarily about humiliating him but opens the door about her perception of him. PJ sees women in a certain context and Ruth unleashes that notion by dressing him up in what she believes how PJ sees women. Consequently, PJ bluntly writes “be kind” on Ruth’s forehead because it’s how he sees in her; cruel, desirably mean, and possibly full of angst. This is then followed by a very vulnerable scene where Ruth shares her biggest fear with him when she says, “No one can be close to me.” You know what I’m scared of? I’m heartless.” It’s the big a-ha moment, for both of these characters because their cruel, strong willed exteriors begin to break down. Their breaking each other’s psyche’s down in the most unusual and unconventional way.
Consequently, Ruth turns the tables on PJ because in a way she’s become his guru leaving him wrecked in the desert chasing after her, while he’s still wearing a dress and red lipstick proclaiming his love for her. And, the look on her face is priceless, but also the realization of the power she holds over him is discovered. In the end, she shows him kindness by cradling him in her arms in the back of a pickup track as they return to civilization. Eventually, she returns to India with her mom and writes PJ a postcard about being in love with him and not understanding why. But, the conclusion is both of these characters shared a connection and it’s reshaped their lives which is something kind of beautiful.
The overall idea here is a girl’s belief in something is completely taken out of context from her overprotective, worrisome parents who believe she’s been lured into a cult. But, we don’t fully understand the cult’s purpose except for that it’s “bad”. My biggest concern is what was wrong with Ruth in the first place? She was experiencing a spiritual possibility governed by love and enlightenment. She wasn’t drinking the kool aid or killing people for sport! And, I think it was the fear of it that really set the ball in motion for this conflict to take place. We fear what we don’t understand which happens everyday to somebody or everybody.
Jane Campion’s theme of eroticism is often weaved through an assortment of her films, which is probably why I’m so drawn to her caliber of storytelling. Holy Smoke! is no exception. Its complexity may be uncomfortable for some, but Campion dives right in exploring the complications of sex, confronting spirituality, and embracing faith in extreme ways. It’s a beautiful, unique, explorative little film because in a way you have to either find a way to give in to the experience with an open mind or completely scrutinize for its heavy confusing ideology. There’s really no in between. You’re either going to like or dislike it. But, with extraordinary performances from Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet, it’s kind of a win win.
Jane Campion is a remarkable storyteller and Holy Smoke! is only one of her many films that adhere to her talented exploration on subjects such as empowerment, eroticism, spirituality, and sexual desire. She’s a personal inspiration to me and I look forward to writing on more of her films which will result in my favorite film of all time, The Piano.