Film Comment Cover Story
January / February 2000 Issue

A few days after the screening of Holy Smoke! in the 1999 New York Film Festival, Kathleen Murphy talked with Jane Campion about her latest film and points beyond. Campion's remarks are interspersed, in italics, throughout Murphy's appreciation of her fearless, flawed, profound movie. -Ed.

The cinematic imagination rarely goes God-hunting or soul-searching in convincing (or high) style. Hard to catch the ineffable in a camera eye that can so easily rob the things of this world of any hyperresonance, something more than three-dimensionality. Conversely, it can accord them such literal weight that they block out metaphysical light. Possibly, the eye must turn with such ravishing Ophulsian motion that the arc captures the shape of eternity. Or, as in Dreyer, Bresson, or Kiarostami, the eye must rest for a time, our vision steady, persistent, to see and savor the shape of something we might call divine through cinema's, and reality's, multilayered smokescreens.

Holy Smoke! is quite religious in the big, broadminded sense, in the big, grownup sense… the way I think the big Christian mind really works: completely unafraid, not dogmatic, rigorous, always questioning and reconfirming faith. A fun but very painful process. I'm hoping that now, just at the turn of the millennium, the film will open up a line of inquiry about ways of Western thinking and questions about layers of commitment and illusion in the spiritual life. I tried very hard to tell a story that doesn't talk about this in a simple way, doesn't tell you solutions.

In Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) was all hungry eyes, an Athena eager to devour experience, so as to fill herself up with understanding's purest light. The austere classicism of Portrait, perfectly expressing Henry James's epistemological/moral scrupulousness, lent Campion's masterpiece the kink of spiritually searing force from which fans of sentimentalized Austen and sexualized James could only shy away. Campion imagined Gilbert Osmond, Isabel's nemesis, as a Luciferian "director" who seduces his wide-eyed angel into a poisoned mise-en-scene where he sadistically diminishes and darkens everything and everyone. Think of all Campion's virgins - girlfriends, sisters, writer, pianist, artist of the beautiful - as bright flames that flicker between creativity and nihilism, innocence and madness, epiphany and "the big, black nothing."

People turned their eyes away [from Portrait] because it wasn't distracting enough. If you're offering something deeper, it's hard for people to get it with that kind of mentality… and time isn't available to people. But the rejection has a divine strengthening quality. The world is not your answer. It's not a reason to give away your principles. It makes you understand that you must be stronger. You must play it both ways and go for the story. My dear hope is that it will play with them afterwards.

Holy Smoke! can be seen as a slacker Portrait, an earthier, uneven, blackly humorous slant on the previous film's dynamics and dialectic. Campion locates Smoke's quest for self and significance in another wrestling match between unforgiving innocence and armored experience: Ruth Baron, an open-souled Australian girl who's fallen hard for an Indian guru, against tough-guy P.J. Waters, the cult expert Ruth's loony family calls in to deprogram their errant child. But the story is also an opportunity for dueling performances: radiating the opulent beauty and promise of a youthful earth goddess, Kate Winslet goes up against charismatic veteran Harvey Keitel, The Piano's lusty Caliban become joyless, aging satyr. And at heart, Holy Smoke! mirrors a metacinematic discourse - on nakedness, manipulation, love - between director and actors. You might say it celebrates Campion's own filmmaking journey from conception to achieved vision.

People say making movies isn't a cure for cancer. I disagree; filmmaking is a cure. It gives you a reason for living. When my son died, on the third day I was devastated. I didn't know what to do with myself. I went to see Orlando. It was so beautiful. This earth can be transformed. There are moments of extreme wonder… and that's all worth living for. In the act of making a movie you are involved with those moments, those transformations. For me, it's been a way of life, totally fulfilling.

Exploring the fertile nexus where one form of belief elides into another, Campion demonstrated in Holy Smoke! that the desires for art, sex, and God are not necessarily discrete. Take the film's deceptively flippant title as guide: It suggests falling in love (with guru, God, or guy) might have somewhat to do with smoke getting in your eyes. But it also conjures up disorienting incense, teasing open the fabled third eye. And, irreverently, it's what you might exclaim, confronted by something outlandish, such as the alternately majestic and grotesque plane on which Ruth Baron and P.J. Waters labor to emerge as brand-new souls. The ambiguities are apt: as Campion charts (and identifies with) the progress of her two latest pilgrims, she mixes up Piano-parable, Down Under sitcom comedy, Sweetie-surreality, caricature, dream, harsh actuality, and more.

This character [Ruth Baron] is full of a fascist and fundamental energy. It's elemental, beautiful, transforming, and it's only available for a short period of time. It's a kind of girlshine; as she learns more about life it will be shadowed. That is the nature of growing up. Holy Smoke! begins in joyous mystery, before the shadowing. And what a struggle back from there, up from there! But I believe that epiphany comes later in life again. Humility is the great wellspring.

In Holy Smoke!'s prologue, Campion plunges you into a Westerner's passage through an India so alive with color, movement, aromas, food, smoke, and flesh that you feel you've been dropped into some earthly paradise. Unnoticed, a black man's hand rests momentarily on Ruth Baron's glowing neck and hair, as though reverencing her sensual energy. In this irresistible context, Neil Diamond's "Holly Holy" becomes hymn, swelling into rising you as young women in white saris slow-motion dance in the sun. Lovers kiss almost ceremoniously at a roof party, sanctified by saturated evening light. Watching Ruth takes it all in - her eyes heavy with seeing so intensely, dark with desire for more mystery. Like the girls-in-waiting who murmur through Portrait of a Lady's opening "poem," Ruth stands poised on the verge of experience, pure appetite and wonder. And for these few moments, courtesy of Campion's eye, we share in that privileged, evanescent, uncritical delight with God's creation and the possibilities ahead.

When guru Chidaatma Baba later snakes his way through the waving arms of his mostly female followers to place a finger in the middle of Ruth's forehead, we can see that he's a bit of a wrinkled toad, a kohl-lidded refugee from some lurid Indian musical or melodrama. But she's primed to take fire: the explosive opening of Ruth's third eye looses a garish vision that fills the screen with cartoon butterflies, lotuses, and eyes. It's bad Indian art, bargain-basement epiphany, an unschooled girl's sketch of spiritual enlightenment. It recalls the silly silent, black-and-white movie - "My Journey" - Isabel Archer makes of her trip to the Third World, and her (almost) giggle-inducing Freudian flashes on animated talking beans (vaginas?), her demon lover's hairy mouth.

I don't believe Campion means us to laugh off her heroines' jejune visual "art"; rather, I think she wants to contrast the force of their faith in the primacy of what they see and feel with adult skepticism, our own critically refined (jaded?) gaze. In the savage solipsism of her youth, Ruth sees and is transported only by the unambiguous clarity of her own movie. (Trying unsuccessfully to lure Ruth home by pretending her dad is dying, her dithery Mum takes refuge in comic sarcasm: "Don't let our deaths inconvenience you…")

Ruth believes she's had an authentic religious experience. She knows it lives somewhere inside her. P.J. cautions that these sorts of feelings are cheap, it can be a trick. Feelings themselves aren't proof of anything… it's like falling in love with the wrong guy.

It's a splash of cinematic cold water when Campion cuts from Ruth's Dionysian delirium in India to a sharp-edged snapshot of hometown San Souci (!), Levittown Down Under, a monotonous grid of shadowless streets and identical, ticky-tacky houses. Indoors, we encounter good-hearted Mum (Julie Hamilton), kin to Sweetie's runaway matriarch who, you recall, found peculiar happiness cooking for outback cowboys. In her own passage to India, desperately pursuing Ruth, Smoke's mother reacts in the hysterical vein of E.M. Forster's Adela Quested; though a vet (and dog groomer) at home, she's deranged into nearly fatal asthma by the heat and press of uncensored "animal" life. But her fearful soul hasn't shut down: vide her visible delight in the pagan abandon with which her beautiful child solo-dances - to Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" - beside a corral full of startled emus.

That dance came out of Kate's own dance experience. It celebrates a young woman's life force, her soul. It's a mantra. One can be on an amazing journey, while others are oblivious even to the possibility. I'm fascinated by where different people can be… their completely different headspaces. Her family has decided that the questions Ruth's addressing are dangerous, the sort of thing young people ask themselves and then get over. They've settled down, done the best they can with life. It's compromise, a bit of deading down.

Ruth's Dad (Tim Robertson) lounges irrelevantly about in shorts, trying to parlay toupee and a sizable middle-aged gut into some semblance of Playboy virility (he's fathered a kid with his secretary, Ruth reveals). And despite his own "outing," Ruth's gay brother - who parties with his boyfriend in tasteless-to-the-max cowboy gear - can't stand up for sis's sari or guru, her outre dress or "lover." When, just after her wild boogie, all of the Baron clan's men encircle Ruth with outstretched arms, herding her like some spooked emu into P.J.'s care, caricature turns cruel. Crouched over in agony, Ruth's terrible cry of betrayal seems torn from the depths of her soul. Campion doesn't mean for us to write the Barons off merely as Aussie Archie Bunkers; still, except for redeemable Mum, Ruth's relations must strike us as a sort of monkey species from which a resplendent young deity has somehow sprung.

But Holy Smoke! honors the roles and movies, no matter how lowbrow or bizarre, with which everyone in this oddball parable seeks to fashion some kind of habitable home in the world. Degrees of creativity range from Ruth's fierce, untested auterism to the vague, tacky dreams of her endearingly slutty sister-in-law. Very infra dig kin to Portrait's lost, child-sacrificing Madame Merle, Yvonne can discern the out-lines of her spiritual prison, but lacks the im-aginative wherewithal to do more than beat her kewpie doll body against its bars. She confesses to P.J. that she writes love letters to herself, manufacturing her own sustaining romance. While doltish hubby rides her flesh, bimbo Yvonne turns her face to draw down passion from bedside clippings of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt.

I don't feel so far from Yvonne sometimes. She's honest: "How can anyone resist you? You're a cult in yourself." She senses the possibility of incredible despair: "Don't go there. There's no point in thinking about it. You just have to be cheerful." For Yvonne, P.J. is the kind of lover you're so mad about you miss their terrible aspect.

As one of her rugrats readies himself to jump into her arms from the back of a truck, Yvonne catches sight of Macho Man P.J., instant "star" of her starveling fantasy life. A deer in headlights, she turns… and unheeded, the kid sails right past her, hitting the dirt with a splat! In extremis, when you can't quite escape the realization that life may be just a "big, black nothing" (the terror Yvonne later shares with indifferent "confessor" P.J.), you take what movies you can get.

I think men and women have to get on with the journey - to the heart - sometime. I think everybody wants to come outside the cave and make that journey. They're just terribly afraid, afraid they're going to go mad and die. It's painful and humiliating, but if that's the calling, how can you resist it?

"Critic" P.J. Waters specializes in seeing through illusion, and has come to be moved by nothing at all. Uniformed in dyed hair, dark glasses, tight jeans, cowboy boots, and brittle machismo, P.J. looks more like the worn-out star of a low-budget Boogie Nights production than wise spiritual guide. First seen in a comic vignette as a strong, silent type cutting through airport hassle, P.J. comes on like a small-time Scorsese wiseguy or Eastwood gunfighter, heading for town to take care of business. (Diamond's "I Am… I Said" backs his entrance; the lyrics - "a frog who dreamed of being a king" - suit him to a T.)

Sex is very primitive… like Pavlov's dog, whatever you start salivating over, you keep salivating over. Releasing yourself from the crippling Pavlovian cycle is part of growing up. Otherwise you never know who you are. You're trapped, P.J. is bored by his own armory, an armory that in protecting him from life is hurting him.

When starstruck Yvonne describes the rites that get her through the night to P.J., he guffaws, unable to see himself in her, even though he then proceeds to demonstrate the similarity of their carnal prayers. (Preparing to interrogate a repelled Ruth, P.J. triggers mouth spray like a drugstore Lothario; and Yvonne gets ready - in funny fast-motion - for their assignation by spraying her crotch.) Allowing her to kneel before the object of her adoration, P.J.'s as clinical as a doctor or a priest as he punctuates his blowjob with a sad mantra - "keep breathing… keep breathing" - as though that's the best one can do while waiting for Godot to come. There's biting satirical comedy in P.J.'s sexual opportunism, but his character's shadowed by just a touch of Gilbert Osmond: as a Grand Inquisitor who brutally assaults false conversions ("189 successes!"), his genuine concern is tainted by a cynic's deadly desire to blight faith, to manhandle credulous Pauls away form transforming light. (He tries to bring Ruth down to earth by recalling the guru who once enchanted him, then shattered his innocence by trying to "wank" his young acolyte.)

There are marvelous, beautiful certainties that we can forget: the sun coming up, the moon, night and day. All these are very important to me. The inexorable movement of the earth, from day to night, night to day, gives certainty. No matter where you go, these things go on.

Ruth and P.J. take each other on in spiritual and gender combat, no holds barred, within a claustrophobic shack set down in the awesome vastness of the Australian Outback. It's like Last Tango in Lawrence's Arabia. Campion paints her exteriors with great sweeps of hurtfully blue sky and red-ocher earth, drowning all in palpable, pure light; you feel you've been transported to some great off world stage where gods might clash or mate. The rounds in the battle between girl and man are clocked by the rise of a great golden moon from behind dark mountains, the spread of the sun's hot lava-light form horizon to horizon. Ruth rearranges white-washed rocks in a pattern unreadable at ground-level; but her CinemaScope bid for H E L P is a message God (or passing pilot) might easily decipher. Stripping his captive of her cultish props, P.J. makes her white sari a banner of surrender, caught in the top branch of a dead tree.

The outback becomes mythic zone: by the time Ruth stumbles into the desert wearing books for shoes, a Scarlet Woman and an antlered car hot on her trail (to the cheerily traumatized tune of "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus"), Campion has seduced us into an altered state of perception - not for the first or even the last time in her Holy Smoke!

Both Ruth and P.J. are saying something true. When you surrender your soul, you can't take it lightly. But she says that his problem is that he's too scared to surrender. It's a young person' challenge to an older one and it's a decent challenge. It's good that the young aren't sidelined by life and experience.

Sermonizing on the dangerously incendiary power of the soul, P.J. strikes an illustrative match, and Campion shoots the flame in extreme closeup, as he moves it back and forth across Ruth's face, scowling on the other side of the room at his little show. The fire links them: in the violent intersection of their respective energies, he will deflower her unforgiving faith; and she will, paradoxically, rape him into fellow-feeling, restoration of innocence. As P.J. assaults her intuitive grasp of spiritual truth with weapons of Socratic reasoning, religious disputation, Ruth defies her "dried up" tormentor, whom she can see is a prisoner of his own hardened defenses. A drop of water from the kitchen spigot - again, in extreme closeup - and a postcoital, outdoor shower mark the melting of P.J.'s long-constricted soul. Uninsistently, Campion punctuates Holy Smoke! with fire and water, elements of immolation and rebirth in any hero's journey toward the hard-earned bliss of authentic life.

In her dysfunctional family's living room (where a sheep serves - unremarked - as TV tray), as P.J. fondles Yvonne's thigh, Ruth is forced to watch another version of her Indian "movie," a videotape documentary spotlighting deluded and destructive cultists. Already bruised, seeing her revelation cast in this ugly light, Ruth breaks, burning her sari back at the hut and standing stark naked out in the night. Winslet faces Keitel - and our gaze - her wonderfully lush body a plea for validation, for the kind of illumination her guru's touch had ignited. Hard to witness Winslet's magnificent vulnerability, her opening to this damaged man. (An actress of rare courage and intelligence, Winslet makes her portrait of divine brat so strong it sears the eyes.) Keitel turns away, professionally rejecting her embrace. Deprived of any sustaining frame of reference, Ruth regresses to fearful blank-eyed child, peeing uncontrollably. Keitel gathers her in; but even as Winslet exposes herself utterly, her youthful flesh is clothing her in power over the "director" who has stripped her of mystery.

She really is a goddess, a young woman with a voice, not just a view as created by men. You speak of the light that seems to come through her eyes. I'm afraid that's something to do with Miss Winslet. She's luminous. She can swallow a poem and look like one. When I saw Harvey and Kate come together, they had a great energy match. She could even scare him a little. She was certainly up to the game. Whatever he was going to do, she was going to do, too.

When Winslet performs in an outback dive, dancing in erotic abandon with a Louise Brooks lookalike, she's righteously revealing to P.J. the power of sensuality, the beauty of flesh heated slowly, artful. (Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" puts her miracle play in perspective.) But her ceremony degenerates into potential gangbang, heathen drunks pawing at her breasts and genitals while she lolls, unconscious. Campion periodically inserts such balancing acts, intersections of heaven and the down-and-dirty throughout Holy Smoke! The dialectic is the journey, as much as in any ribald Chaucerian pilgrimage.

[The bar dance] did turn out erotic, didn't it? But she's trying to communicate to Keitel to tenderness that he doesn't get. It's a kind of snub to him, to flirt with a girl in front of him in a way that telegraphs that he doesn't really understand about sex and eroticism: "You're such a grunter." Afterwards, she tries to teach him very gently. It's very powerful that he follows her instructions almost like a little boy. He makes her feel loved and powerful and she allows herself to be eroticized by him. It's a betrayal when Pam Grier [P.J.'s American girlfriend] shows up.

Several rapprochements and betrayals later, it is Keitel's turn to be flayed as Ruth strips away P.J.'s pretensions, the armor with which he defends his aging manhood, resists his own terror for the loveless dark. A number of writers have seen this as conventional feminist vengeance, an old-style cocksman's punishment for compulsive womanizing. Too narrow a reading, and not Campion's style. The purity of Ruth's assault is as "sinful" as any act the object of her scathing contempt has committed. "Dirty old man" and "cruel and stupid young woman" are both monstrous children, arrested in pre- and postlapsarian states; they must raise each other.

Young people can be quite savage. With all of his palaver and compulsive seducing, at heart he's decent. He could have retaliated in a very wild way with this girl. They love each other in spite of themselves. It happens because they come to a place of deep honesty where they ask questions about how aware we really are about the people we eroticize: "Do you even like me?" If we're so involved with our dreams, how much do we really see each other? Identity is separate from essence. We put together a fabulous identity that's going to protect us from people and also attract fabulous people. Then we spend our lives trying to dismantle it. Growing up is getting naked, finding a different kind of strength that allows you to be without the elaborate trappings of your identity, to become more and more naked to yourself.

Mocking P.J.'s "revolting" lovemaking, his age, his desire for "a youthful pussy transfusion," his macho disguise, Ruth nails him to the cross by announcing how much she lusts after a young man's flesh. Laying his body down, Keitel's quiet "Do your worst" measures how totally he has put himself in her hands, to direct him through some lacerating drama from which he may or may not emerge whole, cleansed at last. "I've got just the girl for you," Ruth sneers, lipsticking his mouth, winding a scarf around his dyed hair, stuffing him into a skintight scarlet dress. As she almost tenderly shapes her Tiresias into female form, Keitel emits small sounds, quick sighing breaths, as though he were an infant warming to his mother's hands. Finished, she shows him her work in a mirror - the grotesque image of a painted woman far past her prime, easy target for macho scorn: "You're lovely." This is raw, brave stuff, a performance as exposed as Winslet's. How many male actors would have it in them to go this far in deconstructing their gender, their cinematic potency, before our eyes? Clint Eastwood's the only one that comes to mind, as in last year's True Crime. In Holy Smoke!, Campion cuts through the Hollywood fertility myth of mating old men with grateful girls to a deeper, more resonant intercourse where Blakean songs of innocence and experience commingle. By the time Keitel writes "Be kind," living mantra, on Winslet's forehead and frames her yet-unforgiving face in the mirror, Bad Lieutenant and Titanic stars have unmasked with a vengeance.

Is Harvey as brave as he seems to be on screen? I would say that you don't see how really brave he is, his fear and vulnerability. His strength is that he's not oblivious to it. He understands it very well. He's very like my sister [Anna Campion, cowriter of Holy Smoke!], a very beautiful person. He's very moved by anybody who trusts and loves him. It's a very safe place for him and he'll try anything as an actor. It's his kind of bliss. Harvey and I understand all of this in a kind of unannounced way. We have what we're going to do to each other, a bit of the Ruth/P.J. thing. We're not going to settle for easy answers. It's a risky business, but there's a well of deep fondness.

Prostrate in the desert, P.J. hallucinates Ruth as a many-armed earth mother, a gorgeous Indian divinity suffused in pink-gold glory. (Ecstatically, The Shirelles trumpet "Baby, It's You" to celebrate his over-the-top revelation.) Campion's unapologetically idiosyncratic pilgrimage doesn't climax in anything like a conventional clinch. Our penultimate God's-eye-view of Campion's couple shows a truckbed pieta, battered P.J. cradled in Ruth's embrace, receding toward a sunset on fire with sumptuous color and light, the very antithesis of Yvonne's "big, black nothing." Campion's Holy Smoke! has engaged filmmakers and audience alike in a journey through the looking glass to confront the fictionmaking gaze, the flawed, funny, profane and sacred movies we conceive to save and lose our souls. This reel goddess can open your third eye if you can stand the light.

We have to seduce people into the joy of thinking, feeling more deeply. I figure it's working in Holy Smoke! "Normal" people are loving it, responding on a very visceral level. That's smashing for me. The ruse has worked, the seduction has succeeded. Mostly I never worry about work. Just at the moment I start falling in love with a film, I start to worry that I'll never be able to finish. But being in the process is enough really. It's like a love affair: the person is escaping you, but you had the wonderful experiences. You don't have to grab on to them. And the next film is always a bit of a protection, too. Nicole [Kidman] and I are going to make Susanna Moore's In the Cut next. It's very beautiful, very moving. I love it already. We'll shoot in New York. Within the context of a thriller, we've got that genre engine going. That engine is very subversive, very seductive. We can put anything we want on our boat and use the engine in a different resonance. It makes the mystery that remains after the mystery is solved.

Murphy: I'm anxious to see this one.

Campion (erupting into her trademark laughter, full of happy, hungry anticipation): I'm anxious to make it!