Holy Smoke feels like a competition between the members of the cast to see who can debase themselves most thoroughly. While it's tough for the supporting cast to compete with headliners Kate Winslet (whose character, Ruth, spouts inane pseudo-feminist dialogue between bouts of full frontal nudity and self-urination) and Harvey Keitel (the "exit counselor," P.J., who ends up roaming the Australian wilderness in drag towards the end of the film), they do their level best. Ruth's "Mum" is a standard issue Australian-farce model of maternal naivété. Her Dad is the cursing, golf-playing, ruddy-faced sort of gent who is always paired with Mum in these sorts of movie families. And sister Yvonne (Sophie Lee, who played the bubble-headed Tania in Muriel's Wedding) spends all of five minutes in P.J.'s company before awkwardly trying to seduce him -- culminating in an equally clumsy bit of fellatio while propped up against the side of a Range Rover.
And yet, the film is not an Australian comedy; it is (mostly) a drama about Ruth's introduction to an Indian yogi named "Baba" and her family's efforts to extract her from what they perceive as a cult that has stolen their child from them. Their champion is P.J., who has a standard three-day plan for dealing with such "clients," but has misgivings about getting started without an assistant. He tries to break Ruth of her newfound mysticism and finds himself seduced by her instead. Although the sari-clad woman does eventually question her infatuation with Baba, she does so while pushing P.J. through a regimen of humiliation, psychological torture, and abrupt sessions of rigorous sex. Not that I cared; once sequestered together in the little house in the outback, P.J. and Ruth are both utterly unlikeable. P.J.'s girlfriend/assistant (holy cats! it's Pam Grier!), who shows up at the movie's end, expresses disgust similar to my own at the behavior of both of these idiots. Unfortunately, Grier's character doesn't pull a gun out of her hairdo to blow them away, but rather forgives the schmuck.
Nevertheless, Grier's presence in Holy Smoke is beautifully ironic. While the movie is nominally a drama about sexual power and religious fervor, it soon exposes itself as being as exploitative as anything Grier appeared in previously -- without even providing entertainment in the bargain. Good lord, Kate -- couldn't you get a part in something a little less -- I dunno -- sleazy?
I get the feeling this was probably a lot more impressive on the big screen; certainly the landscape scenes of the outback don't feel very expansive, even in widescreen, on my humble cathode ray tube. But as with all films made in the last few years, this one looks very, very good on disc. A visual surprise comes early on in the film when Ruth's "third eye" is opened by Baba, and ethereal butterflies float about her head. Unfortunately, it's a solitary treat.
If ever a film needed director's commentary, this is it. Co-writer/director Jane Campion (The Piano) has some 'splaining to do. Don't bother looking for it, though -- this very vanilla disc offers nothing, not even a trailer. So much for enlightenment.
Chris Holland, 9/4/00