Holy Smoke by Jane Campion is a movie whose most basic assumptions—arising out of a weirdly anachronistic, 1970s-vintage view of bourgeois life—makes it rather difficult to like. From the first glimpse she gives us of “Sans Souci, Sydney,” an overhead shot of acres of tiled-roof bungalows that bespeaks “suburbia,” we know that Miss Campion’s sympathies are going to be with her heroine’s desire to get out of this middle-class hell-hole and get in touch with something allegedly more authentic. This the heroine, Ruth (Kate Winslet), does by going off to India and joining a cult. The plot of the film hinges on her family’s efforts to bring her back to Australia and “de-program” her with the expensively-obtained help of the American cult “exiter” P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel).
Also from the start, the film sneers at Ruth’s family and friends. True to the 70s spirit, they are all portrayed as boors and hypocrites whose lives are empty of meaning. True, it is honest enough not to romanticize either the cult Ruth joins or the Indian milieu, though it does pretty clearly regard India as being somehow more authentic, if not more spiritual, than life in Australia. Ruth’s Edith Bunker-like Mom (Julie Hamilton), on going to retrieve her by falsely claiming that her father has had a stroke and may die, faints when confronted with the raw, disgusting urgency of life on the edge of survival, as it is lived among the poor of India. Taken home to Sydney on a stretcher, she has only enough strength to cry out: “Thank God it’s Quantas!”
So maybe, Jane Campion is willing to acknowledge, Ruth’s joining a cult is going a bit far. Oddly, the film never really explores this question. You’d think it would have some interest in telling us just what the cult believed and evaluating those beliefs. Instead, it is content to concede the major tenet of the conventional and suburban view—that cults in general are bad things, good things to be got out of, run by charlatans—while clinging to what it can of the questing, “spiritual” predisposition that leads Ruth to the cult in the first place. By the end, it has got her where it wants her: back in India but out of the cult. Instead, she and mom both are working at some kind of animal shelter. Spiritual enlightenment may be a chimera, but sentimentality about animals is presumably the real deal. Typical liberal!
Also, Keitel’s P.J. Waters is an ambiguous character. On the one hand he is right about the cults (presumably), but on the other hand he is vain, preening, American and rather contemptible in his vulnerability to Ruth’s sexual assault on his self-assurance. The real interest of the film is in its analysis of the power-play between the two of them. Waters’s power over Ruth is intellectual, chronological, physical, social (as he is the representative of her parents and friends as well as of mainstream middle-class culture) and therefore political. All this would seem to be overwhelming. Yet Ruth is able to sweep it all away with the one weapon she has, her sexual power. In the penultimate scene, Waters is the picture of a ruined man—beaten up, professionally discredited, wearing a dress and lipstick and whimpering of the “love” for which he has sacrificed everything.
This may seem just a little over the top, but it is certainly an interesting “concept,” to use Hollywood language. The odd thing is that Miss Campion seems to fight shy of the moral and political implications of what she has presented us with. She tacks on a coda set “one year later” in which Waters and Ruth are both pictured as settled into more-or-less respectable lives and relationships with others while writing to each other of a lingering longing. It is a sort of women’s romance ending. The political made personal.What lingers with us is Ruth’s all-too ruthless destruction of Waters and his impotent and pathetic protest: “Your physical superiority makes you unkind.”
For a moment, she allows Ruth to feel the prick of conscience: “In spite of all my strong feelings, I’m heartless….No one can be close to me….Do you even like me?” she asks. But we see no more evidence that this brief moment of humility makes any real difference in her life than Waters’s humiliation seems to have made in his. And this, at the risk of sounding incredibly “sexist,” is a very feminine conclusion. Miss Campion, who will be 46 at her next birthday, has taken out and looked honestly for a moment at the immense power nature has given young women over men. But then she plops the little radioactive moment in her purse and smartly snaps it shut. We’ll pretend we didn’t see that.