Holy Smoke

(Jane Campion, USA, 1999)


Holy Smoke feels like at least three different films jarringly spliced together.

The opening section, set in India, is unquestionably its best part – alive with mystery and supple suggestiveness. Dion Beebe’s cinematography conjures a culture utterly alien to Australian tourists like Ruth who vacillate between self-abandonment and bewilderment. A key theme – the difficulty of telling spiritual from erotic ecstasy – gradually insinuates itself into these early images and situations (as with the uncomfortable closeness Ruth experiences with locals on public transport).

Then it’s over to Australia for a Muriel’s Wedding-style, gross comedy about suburban, family manners. In itself, this juxtaposition need not be a problem, need not be instantly disallowed (as so many negative commentaries on the film have presumed) – mood switches and broad clashes of tone have been a staple even of art cinema since Renoir in the ’30s, continued vigorously today by Kusturica. Moreover, although much of the detail in this strand of the film evokes an anthology of recent Australian cinema of the quirky or ‘suburban surreal’ style – thus smacking of commercial calculation to some jaundiced viewers – Campion is in fact being very much true to her own history as a filmmaker, by returning to the sensibility of her early shorts. It is almost self-homage, a gesture which reveals (incidentally) how completely influential, especially in Australia and New Zealand, those shorts were.

The moronic, alienated behaviour, the affected patter, the overload of kitsch interior decoration in Holy Smoke – all this was already fully formed in A Girl’s Own Story. So, too – more worryingly – was the smug hierarchy of characters and their ‘inner selves’. For Campion, the behaviour of those raised within a shallow, suburban environment is equally shallow and despicable. Pathetic, unfaithful husbands, thinking themselves ‘classy’, chuck around a few foreign words (“c’est moi!” – Paul Chubb’s telephone greeting to his mistress in A Girl’s Own Story); a gaggle of family members blunders about, kids underfoot, oblivious to the real, deep issues. In Holy Smoke, the Baron clan is a gruesome, coarse, decidedly unspiritual bunch. It is only when Ruth escapes home and family that she at last becomes the soulful star of a serious art film set within a brooding, expressive landscape. There is always a slightly distasteful hint of aristocracy to Campion’s voyager-heroines. The ‘stars’ transform, while the secondary characters remain fixed as nitwits.

The hot-house situation which subsequently develops between the kidnapped Ruth and PJ, the ‘exit counsellor’ from America, should, by rights, allow Campion to do everything she does best. Perversity, ambiguity, the struggle between mind, soul and body: it’s all there for the taking. The peculiar poetry of Campion’s manner – disembodied shots of fingers, hands, feet, shoes – briefly reasserts itself. A motif of flame (from cigarette lighters to a house on fire) cleverly condenses the ongoing philosophical argument about what really constitutes a person’s ‘spark’ of soulful humanity (was Campion influenced here, I wonder, by a contemporaneous film she loves, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line?).

But there is an uncertainty and desperation hovering over Holy Smoke – indicated, for example, by the odd, unnecessary, occasional insertion of PJ’s voice-over narration. Switching tones and using different plot threads for pointed contrast is one thing; dissipating the dramatic intensity in what feels like a desperate bid to entertain and spice up proceedings is quite another. In comparison with two other contemporaneous films by women about desire and obsession, Davida Allen’s Feeling Sexy (1999) and Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), this one does not have the nerve to stay on the case and burrow into the chamber drama of two people figuring out their difficult relationship.

The film is unevenly pitched. In the kitsch thread, virtually all the scenes involving Sophie Lee are badly judged and barely watchable. Even more damagingly, many of the dialogues between Ruth and PJ are puzzlingly inert and undramatic: the staging becomes stiff, the words flow by indifferently, and the supposedly explosive chemistry between the leads is, for the most part, absent. Perhaps less immediately obvious, but profoundly crippling in its effects, is Campion’s botched sense of what Pascal Bonitzer calls unreal, “passionate” time in relation to standard clock and calendar time, something every kind of filmmaker has to master: the jagged ‘stations’ of the Ruth-PJ relationship, the phases and transformations they pass through, never convincingly tally with the succession of just a few days and nights. As in Portrait, nothing really builds, branches, culminates or resolves in a satisfying way.

Winslet and Keitel certainly approach their roles with energy and conviction. But they seem to be struggling with the lack of definition of their characters. Ruth behaves at some moments like a giggly, cruel teen and at others like a questing adult. PJ too often becomes a caricature of the ’70s era macho male, an easy butt for satire. Again, Campion has a perfect right to use and explore characters who are multi-layered, quixotic, paradoxical, contradictory (as Altman or Rohmer do) – but we need to intuit a core logic to this characterological mischief, within a narrative and cinematic form that accommodates and justifies it.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is its lack of a truly consistent and expressive style. A decade before, in Sweetie, Campion’s vision was clamped onto the material like a pair of shark jaws: relentlessly, every shot and scene was made to look weird and internally disconnected (that relentless alternation of left and right diagonals with rhyming pockets of negative space). It wasn’t subtle, but it was certainly distinctive, strongly influencing a generation of independent filmmakers right around the world. Holy Smoke marks the almost total dissipation of Campion’s unified style. Did she want to shake up her signature style, transform it, open new possibilities? Fine. But in fact, rather alarmingly, she has adopted the mode of much current Australian art cinema, what I think of as the Paul Cox syndrome: ordinary, often dully filmed scenes are capped off with sudden, expressionistic transitions (such as a dreamy hallucination) or injected with a heavy dose of slow-motion (abroad, the same mode cheapens American Beauty [Sam Mendes, 1999] and Boys Don’t Cry [Kimberley Swain, 1999]). Meanwhile, Holy Smoke‘s music track alternates between kitsch memories (Neil Diamond) and an unmemorable, washy score by David Lynch regular, Angelo Badalamenti.

On a first viewing, I felt that Holy Smoke was a superficial film. By any conventional dramatic standards, it indeed fails to add up: characters appear and disappear; hints and intrigues that are heavily signalled go nowhere; and, in its final stretch, the script lurches wildly in all directions, searching in vain for a big frisson (Ruth pashing a girl, PJ in a dress). Second time around, the penny dropped, and the heretical thought occurred to me: perhaps, quite simply, Campion is not cut out to be a storyteller. All her films are full of narrative illogicalities, abrupt breaks, blocks of material bashed up against each other. Perhaps her attachment to striking, ‘stand out’ imagery, dream-apparitions, thick atmosphere, and everything in the world that just never comes together into a satisfying, reconcilable whole (especially the contradictory behaviours of confused people) places her beyond every kind of nominal narrative unity. Perhaps she wants or needs to be, after all, an experimental filmmaker. But this is not the path she has chosen to travel, and she has never given any public sign that it’s where she wants to be. With The Portrait of a Lady and Holy Smoke, Campion lost her way – hopefully not permanently.

MORE Campion: In the Cut, The Piano

© Adrian Martin 1999/2000.

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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