Film Reviews

Holy Smoke Jane Campion

Rating - 8/10

Reading yesterday's review of Sweetie by Gary Collins, I had an itch to go into some Jane Campion.  I'd love to call complaints about treatment of women, even in progressive intellectual circles like internetshittalkingaboutmovies, a tiresome exercise, but the problems still exist.  I still need to see Sweetie and Portrait of a Lady, and I'm figuring out that that's squarely my problem.  While most of the major auteurs of the '90s have slid their way into big Hollywood projects with movie star patrons and/or rabid cult appreciation, Campion seems both under-funded and under-discussed, as if we're almost eager to sweep a world class strong female director under the carpet of filmic male jizzery. 

I'd like to blame Nicole Kidman, who could have done for Campion what George Clooney did for the Coen Brothers, but instead cast her lot with Baz Luhrman from across the pond instead of repping her homegirl.  That's no good, though, I'm trying to get away from blaming my problems (one of which just became the criminal under-appreciation of Jane Campion) on celebrities.  So I ask myself, "Jane Campion, what have I done for you lately?"  I am forced to realize I have never done anything for Jane Campion, so it is past time to come out as a Campion admirer and write about one of her movies.

What to start with?  The Piano?  No, that's a potential future 10/10 that I want to give some tender loving care to.  In the Cut?  Ehh, too fraught with practical flaws and sticky ideas that I haven't figured out what I think about.  I know, lets talk about one of those random overlooked big-budget Hollywood indies, Holy Smoke.  On paper, Holy Smoke might sound like a didactic and dry excuse to have a conversation on gender relations in the contrived context of a movie story.  In performance and execution, it is one of the more surprising badass character showdowns ever made.

Kate Winslet is a free-spirited, intelligent collegian exploring the world when she has a spirital experience and devotes herself to an Indian (in India, not a tribesman whose land was stolen by caucasians and called America) religious leader.  Harvey Keitel is a professional deprogrammer who breaks the recently enlightened with his uber-manly kickass demeanor and psychological expertise.  Winslet's family assists Keitel in her abduction and confinement to a remote part of Austrailia (as if there is any other kind).  They go head-to-head in a religious/philosophical/sexual/psychological battle of wills, and you can probably guess who easily wins.

Keitel is an actor who effortlessly projects machismo, but he has chosen to subvert that image in countless roles that are more fearless, surprising and interesting (except now I hear he's doing network TV, so I don't know what that's about).  Here, he is a pitch perfect comic caricature of self-sculpted masculinity eventually reduced to madly prancing about the outback in a dress and make-up.  Winslet also has canny comic instincts personifying the self-possessed sexually active female college intellectual.  Both have tones of hubris to chip away at.

Campion gets her shots in and makes her points about gender iniquities and subversions of notions about strength and mastery.  Keitel and Winslet are both, in their distinct ways, cartoon badasses here, and Campion is rarely subtle in which pose she thinks is really stronger.  More clownery is given to the masculine archetypes, from the stereotypically retarded Austrailian males depicted in Winslet's family unit to the buffoonery Keitel commits to without ego.  It is weighted, but not entirely one-sided, as Winslet does get her own self-styled exterior damaged a bit, suggesting that alphas of both genders could use a little humanizing and empathy.

The scenario of these characters ideologically sparring in their own Thunderdome of manipulation may sound heavy-handed, and indeed much is told but not shown on conflicting views of gender.  What comes across viscerally, however, is a charming gonzo comedy with some serious subject matter and a bravura scenario.  This is not Campion's most masterful film, but it would have been her most crowd pleasing had a crowd shown up to it.  Along with her small, great cast, including a welcome cameo in the late going by Pam Grier bringing all the fury of Coffy to a woman simply scorning her man for being a dick-led dumbass, this manages to make a rather weighty discection of gender politics into a filling, satisfying comedy.  Take a look.  I bet you'll have fun with it.