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With: Kate Winslet, Harvey Keitel, Pam Grier, Julie Hamilton, Sophie Lee, Daniel Wyllie, Paul Goddard, Tim Robertson
Written by: Jane Campion, Anna Campion
Directed by: Jane Campion
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality and language
Running Time: 115
Date: 09/04/1999

Holy Smoke (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Last Tango in Australia

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jane Campion's new film explodes on the screen with cluttered, confused, blotchy shots of India accompanied by Neil Diamond singing "Holy Holy". During this glorious mess, a young white woman, Ruth (Kate Winslet), goes to see a guru. His eyes bore into her soul, and she sees colored lights and singing birds. If Holy Smoke sounds like a mish-mash of comedy, drama, flamboyance, and stillness, it is. Strangely enough, though, it all binds together and works, becoming Campion's most lively picture to date.

Ruth becomes enraptured by her newfound religion. Her mother (Julie Hamilton) hires an American (Harvey Keitel) to de-program her and bring her back to her family. We first see Keitel, playing P.J. Waters, strutting around an airport, cool as hell and wearing black. He has his own theme song (Diamond's "I Am... I Said") and reminds us of the Wolf from Pulp Fiction (1994) and a half dozen other supercool roles he's played. P.J. and Ruth drive off to a little cabin in the middle of the Australian outback for a three-day talk about religion, beliefs, and what our purpose is in life.

Campion wants to keep us off-balance this whole time. Her cinematographer Dion Beebe keeps everything dusty and dreamlike, moving around, but not shaking. We see amazing shots like a close-up of a match flame in the foreground, obscuring Ruth's face in the background. Campion and her co-screenwriter/sister Anna Campion throw us oddball comedy and illuminating truth alternately. One moment we have real pain and frustration, and another moment we're laughing as P.J. is seduced by Ruth's sexy/slutty sister-in-law Yvonne (Sophie Lee).

After some time in the cabin, Ruth's will and sensuality remain immensely strong, and P.J.'s self-control begins to falter. We get a sexual power play that's close to the heart of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) by visual way of Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970). Some of the final images are of the kind that will send some audiences screaming from the room, but would fascinate the likes of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. The ever-shifting tone even strays into the exploitation realm of John Waters or Russ Meyer. By the time Keitel's lover/assistant (Pam Grier) shows up, things have gone completely haywire.

The last time Campion worked with Harvey Keitel in The Piano (1993), she photographed him in the buff. We don't see nearly as much here, but we do see a lot of Winslet, who is constantly battling a steady stream of media pressure to deal with her "weight". Sure, she doesn't look like Cindy Crawford, but she looks like a healthy, real person, stunningly beautiful. I hope this movie shuts up some of the Entertainment Tonight hacks who insist on pestering her. With her clothes on or off, Winslet gives an amazingly brave and unguarded performance.

Holy Smoke does journey all over the map in a variety of tones and styles, but Campion is a master director and keeps this under control. The movie is about psychological craziness and longing for the answers. In one scene, Keitel plays his trump card by writing "Be Kind" backwards on Winslet's forehead. The simple truth of it moves her to tears, but she has to look in the mirror to read it. It's great to see Campion, one of our greatest filmmakers, really pushing herself and exploring her boundaries. Holy Smoke is alive while an emotional coldness pervades An Angel at My Table (1991), The Piano (1993), and The Portrait of a Lady (1996), which are nonetheless admirable works. Holy Smoke is a big step forward for Campion and it makes me all the more excited for her next film.

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