Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke , from a screenplay by Anna Campion and Jane Campion, treads a fine line between mordant irony and mere facetiousness as it hops back and forth between Australia and India in a guru-driven sensual quest for faith and fraud. Ms. Campion is a wild talent even by Australia’s wild standards, which is to say that Holy Smoke is by turns witty, messy, perceptive, outrageous, incoherent, satirical, bombastic, cruel, lecherous, compassionate, violent, reflective and terminally unstable from one shot to the next. If it is held together at all, and I am not sure that it is, it is by the grace of Kate Winslet’s extraordinary and unparalleled range as an actress in what passes as the modern cinema in all its post-censorship sensations.
Ms. Winslet’s Ruth is a young Australian woman bewitched by the scents and certitudes of vaguely Eastern religions. Tricked by her parents into returning home from lightly spoofed India to heavily spoofed suburban Australia, Ruth finds herself delivered from one middle-aged guru in Hindu ceremonial costume to another middle-aged guru hired from America to reprogram her back into the tedium of suburban puttering and piety. Harvey Keitel’s P.J. Waters is summoned by Ruth’s family as a high-powered “spiritual” expert with a reputation for making his cult-possessed subjects use their own minds to free themselves from their obsessions.
Mr. Keitel, now in his late 50’s, is six years older than he was when he produced a priapic furor with his primitively matter-of-fact frontal male nudity in Ms. Campion’s award-winning The Piano (1993). At that time, his female co-star Holly Hunter was in her mid-30’s and no special attention was paid to the age differential. In Holy Smoke , however, Mr. Keitel’s P.J. Waters is tormented and humiliated by Ms. Winslet’s much younger Ruth for his dirty-old-man presumption. This is the crux of the drama and the heart of the matter: By finally discovering her sexual power as a woman along with its destructive potentialities, Ruth discovers also the warm maternal side of her nature that enables her to take pity on her pathetically obsessed lover.
In fairness to Mr. Keitel’s talents as a performer, it must be conceded that he is too much of a known quantity to surprise us anymore with his brand of hard-edged Actors Studio sensitivity. Ms. Winslet, however, continues to amaze with the sheer variety of her changes in accents, expressions and physical postures, from her homicidal nymphet debut in 1994 in Heavenly Creatures (1994) through Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Jude (1996), as well as her both overshadowed and underrated performances in the more recent Titanic (1997) and Hideous Kinky (1998).
Without Ms. Winslet to lend dignity, stature and complexity to the flaky, bratty, snotty role of Ruth, Holy Smoke would have floated away in the froth of broadly caricatured Australian and Indian gargoyles. Ms. Campion’s direction of actors and her depiction of social types have always mixed large doses of ridiculousness into the Australian absurdist stew, often seemingly in a bid for easy laughs and impolite shocks. Fortunately, Ms. Winslet’s Ruth is a fluid enough collaborative creation to blend into her crudely dysfunctional family without losing her individual qualities that enable her in the end to find her way in an adult manner. Among the other players, Julie Hamilton as Mum, Tim Robertson as Dad and Pam Grier in the cameo role of Carol-the stateside squeeze of Mr. Keitel’s P.J. Waters-have moments of escape into their private interiors from the constrictions of their sociologically programmed images.
I find it increasingly bizarre for people to complain that there are no parts for women when I seem to discover on the contrary every week that this may indeed be the golden age for actresses, though perhaps not at the kiddie-action-driven movie marketplace. Ms. Winslet is, by contrast, champagne and caviar for moviegoing grown-ups with good taste.
A Karaoke Love Story
Alain Resnais’ Same Old Song ( On Connait la Chanson ), from a screenplay by Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, emerges as an enchanting entertainment with the most deceptively simple means. Its six main characters burst into song in the middle of dramatic scenes, but the songs, or chansons , are French pop hits merely lip-synched by the actors to the recorded voices of Josephine Baker, Charles Aznavour, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Gilbert Bécaud, among many other famous music hall and operetta performers.
In the spirit of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (1996), in which the director set out to make an old-fashioned Hollywood musical with a full complement of song and dance numbers, Mr. Resnais and his scenarists have acknowledged their debt to Dennis Potter (1935-1994) for his epoch-al bittersweet musical dramas for the BBC and Channel Four, Pennies From Heaven (1978), The Singing Detective (1986) and Lipstick On Your Collar (1993). But Potter played his lip-synched songs in full and Mr. Allen used the actors’ mostly untrained voices to sing famous pop ballads-in their entirety-from the pre-rock era. Same Old Song uses only a few melodious bars from each of its pop songs, more to complete spoken dialogue scenes than to replace them.
What is most interesting about Same Old Song is that the complicated love story is rendered in Mr. Resnais’ recent simpler, neo-theatrical style in contrast to his earlier editing fragmentation of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963). The main characters are run through a modernist maze of frustration and failure before they can acknowledge their deepest feelings and truest loves. The story rotates outward from the contrasting personalities of two sisters, Odile (Sabine Azema) and Camille (co-writer Ms. Jaoui). The outwardly complacent and self-confident Odile has purchased an apartment from smooth-talking Marc (Lambert Wilson) without knowing that a new housing development is going to destroy her view. Camille, who moonlights as a Parisian tour guide while completing her massive thesis on the yeomen of Paladru Lake in the year 1000, is being pursued by both middle-aged radio-poet and real estate salesman Simon (André Dussollier) and his boss, Marc. Meanwhile, Odile’s old flame Nicolas (co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri) bounces into town, separated from his wife and embarrassingly unemployed, much to the discomfiture of Odile’s long-patient husband, Claude (Pierre Arditi).
Before all the affinities and alienating dysfunctions have been sorted out, we have plunged into the contemporary world of panic attacks and bouts of depression with all the little things adding up to big things. The biggest thing of all is the mask of deception we all wear in our relations with other people, and here the snatches of song, in the down-to-earth language of the chansons , serve to liberate the suppressed inner feelings of the characters.
Stamp and Fonda Withstand a Soderbergh Stylization
Don’t miss Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey , from a screenplay by Lem Dobbs, first for the iconic homage to the career personae of Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda, second for the sturdy support of Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, Barry Newman, Nicky Katt, Amelia Heinle and Melissa George, and finally for the dreamlike rendering of Los Angeles through the eyes of a British ex-con out to avenge the suspicious death of his daughter.
Ironically, Mr. Soderbergh has chosen to tell his comparatively simple story in the fragmented Resnais-Godard manner of the 60’s with jump cuts, shock editing and asynchronous narration. It is a technique that worked for me in John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) and in Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), and it works for me here because the characterizations are strong enough and deeply felt enough to withstand the stresses and strains of stylistic deconstruction.
Defending Dreyer … Again
I strongly suspect that few if any of the people who stand on picket lines to denounce a film or an art exhibit as anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, sacrilegious or just plain objectionable will rush off to see the Film Forum series on Carl Theodor Dreyer running from Oct. 13 through Oct. 19. The series opened with the documentary Carl Theodor Dreyer: My Métier (1996), and continues with The Parson’s Widow (1920); Vampyr (1932); The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); Ordet (1955), my favorite; Day of Wrath (1943) and Gertrud (1964), which I angrily defended at the time against its legions of detractors with the following fulmination:
“Dreyer has poured his soul into the luminous light into which the actors float on an ever so subtly and ever so slowly moving camera. ‘But his isn’t cinema!’ snort the registered academicians with their kindergarten notions of kinetics. How can you have cinema when two people sit and talk on a couch as their life drifts imperceptibly out of their grasp? The academicians are right of course. Dreyer simply isn’t cinema. Cinema is Dreyer. That wildly beating heart struggling against its mortal coils, that fierce resignation one encounters in characters who realize too late that love is the only meaningful issue of life, the only consolation of memory.”
Dreyer was not about surface piety, but about a deeply felt religiosity that goes too deeply into the soul to concern itself with a slavishly philistinish attachment to the external rituals and ceremonies of the Church. The artist wrestling with his faith through art, like Dreyer, like Bresson, like Rossellini, like Godard, like Scorsese and, yes, like Kevin Smith, has ventured far beyond the comfortable pieties.