To the feature films by Jane Campion that Netflix offers at the same time as The Power of the Dog (Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, The Piano Lesson, Bright Star) is added, on TCM Cinéma, Holy Smoke (1999) , who stands out in the New Zealand filmmaker’s filmography as the college clown on class photo day.
Grimacing, burlesque, excessive, and sometimes approximate, this film nevertheless deserves that we devote an evening to it, which we will spend marveling at the improbable harmonies born of the duo Kate Winslet-Harvey Keitel and spotting, under the rococo scrolls of the screenplay (by Jane and Anna Campion) and the staging, themes dear to the director.
Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) left the residential suburb of Sidney where she grew up for India. There, she fell under the spell of a guru to whom she proposes to devote her life. Under the spell or under the influence. Ruth’s parents are convinced that the second term applies exactly to their daughter. Listening only to her courage, Mrs. Barron leaves for Delhi and, succeeds, by a crude subterfuge, in convincing the young girl to return to Australia.
Somewhere in the bush, in a glowing landscape, awaits P. J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), a “deprogrammer” from the United States, who is determined to bring the prodigal son back to the right path after a few days. behind closed doors that this 50-year-old who looks like a New York mackerel (it really looks like Keitel drew on his Taxi Driver character) promises intense.
Desire and domination
Between the saturated colors of the Indian sequences, the grotesque silhouettes of the Australian tribe, the first scenes of Holy Smoke fall within the grating comedy. Which makes the shift in register all the more disconcerting as the deprogrammer and his “client” take up residence in an isolated hut in the desert.
As in The Power of the Dog, desire distorts the mechanics of domination. The expected psychodrama gives way to an erotic swagger that will end up leaving the male protagonist devoid of the attributes of his power. Harvey Keitel, who first came across as the epitome of American manhood (and Jane Campion takes delight in mocking Australian adulation for anything from across the Pacific), is gradually qualifying his game to crack the portrait of his character, to bring him back to his uncertainties.
Two years after Titanic (in the meantime we had only seen her in Marrakech Express, another story of mystical expatriation), Kate Winslet seems determined to get rid of any suspicion of British propriety. Ruth Barron may be naive, in any case she emanates a force that the little psychological manipulations of the deprogrammer cannot undermine. Imperious and unpredictable, the actress convinces, despite some ease of the script, of the ascendancy that her character exercises over this man who made a point of bringing lost women back to the fold.
If you add an exclamation mark, Holy Smoke! can be heard as an outdated swear word. But in the end, a heady perfume emerges from this sacred vapor which no longer has anything to do with the intense satire of the first sequences, which is rather the sensory expression of the eternal object of Jane Campion’s cinema, the path that goes from desire to love.