(Part 27 of an Ongoing Series)
The mind’s a damn mystery. Why do people believe in God? Why do people believe they’re in love? Why do I tell myself every day, ‘You’re fat, mate. Today I’m not gonna eat cake, butter, or bread.’ And by lunch time, I’ve done the lot?
Stan (Sandy Gutman)
Holy Smoke! jumps off from a millennial anxiety over the dark powers of late 20th Century cults (Manson, Jones, Koresh, Applewhite), but it ends up swimming in a trippy, sweaty stew of twisted, erotic, psycho-sexual mind games before coming up for air on a surprisingly tender shore of platonic love.
When the movie was released, some critics wrote of its “feminist” qualities (The AV Club mentioned Jane Campion’s “torrid feminism;” Ebert called the film a “feminist parable”). And while I totally see Holy Smoke! as a torrid parable, I call bullshit on it being all that feminist. This has less to do with my personal feelings on the word “feminism,” and how I think it’s a lousy word for the kind of gender equality most self-described feminists claim to seek (though I won’t get into that here, lest any Jezebel feminists come at me armed with inane Seussian analogies). No, this has more to do with Campion’s own views, like, “I don’t belong to any clubs, and I dislike club mentality of any kind, even feminism—although I do relate to the purpose and point of feminism.” And also because the whole point of Holy Smoke! seems to be that both the man (Harvey Keitel’s PJ) and the woman (Kate Winslet’s Ruth) are equally transformed by each other, each one stripped of some of their gender’s stereotypical flaws.
I can’t say I entirely buy these transformations, at least based on how these characters are initially developed. But hey, it’s a parable, and insanely seductive in that 1999 way, so I’ll cut it some slack if its characters don’t exactly follow the most believable arcs. And besides, if I was stuck with Ruth for three days in the Australian Outback, I can’t say for sure that I wouldn’t wind up sprawled on the ground in a nice red dress, lipstick smeared across my mouth, crazy from the heat, reveling in an epiphanic hallucination of a Hindu goddess. I mean, there but for the grace of Lakshmi go I…