...a film whose signature scene shows Harvey Keitel dancing in the desert wearing a bright red dress and one black boot.
Nothing about Jane Campion's imagination is predictable. In the opening scene of The Piano you won't forget the majestic instrument itself sitting on the edge of the Australian surf. Now Ms. Campion and her sister Anna bring us Holy Smoke, a film whose signature scene shows Harvey Keitel dancing in the desert wearing a bright red dress and one black boot.
The politics of sex, the emotional interplay of people and landscape, the idiosyncrasies of family-all are Jane Campion's special preserve. Because she is not an ordinary person, she will never produce an ordinary film. When she falters, as she does here, her effort is still a sight to behold.
Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) has fled suburban Australia for India, where young people with the wherewithal to indulge themselves have sought enlightenment for years. In thralldom to gurus, they willingly spend years proving they are not as shallow or boring as their parents. For Ruth, India is a cultural option of the moment. Her worried parents have hired a professional to retrieve her.
PJ (Harvey Keitel) is an American expert at "exiting" the innocent young from the alien worlds that absorb them. He will, he vows, have no trouble exiting Ruth. For $10,000 he sets off for India. But Ruth is not an innocent. A free spirit, Ruth dances with ostriches and lives in the chaos of a noisy extended family. She captures PJ instantly.
Jane Campion makes an interesting choice: she puts all the cards in Ruth's hands, turning Ruth into the observer, PJ into the observed. Ruth tells PJ everything she hates about him and then makes him up as a woman. Now we are immersed in the endless Indian sand watching PJ distracted from his mission by an irresistible spirit about four decades younger than he. With the same odd abandon with which he displayed his aging nakedness in The Piano, Harvey Keitel's PJ plays to the physical disparity that lends a grotesque edge to their sex. She defiles him, and he loves it. She has won.
In another creative choice, Jane Campion sets her film at the spot where farmland becomes desert, where nothing can be grown, where "farming is spiritual." Using vivid colors against the vast desert background, she shows again her mastery of landscape as character. In Australia and India she creates the brutality a landscape can impress on its inhabitants. She explores the vulnerability of people mired in their own ennui.
With a rare sense of mystery, the wonderful Kate Winslet surprises us continually. Harvey Keitel, on the other hand, is as odd a choice for this role as he was for The Piano. He chooses to make himself a singularly unattractive man both emotionally and physically. His cavorting on the desert sand in a red dress and one black boot is meant to be surreal, but becomes merely awkward. Jane Campion has a casting problem.
Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 498
Studio : Miramax
Rating : R
Running time : 2h0m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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