Urban Cinefile
"That was so quick, we thought there must be a catch, because there's nothing worse than coming THIS close to making a film you've been trying to make. "  -Aussie writer Leigh Whannell on getting the greenlight for Saw
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Wednesday October 17, 2018 

Help/Contact

CAMPION, JANE: Holy Smoke

WITCHES OF FREEDOM
All through history you can see how women have been controlled; and if they break free, how they're rounded up as witches, or as insane, Jane Campion tells DIANA SIMMONDS, in a conversation about Campion's latest film, Holy Smoke.

"It's simple. It's a reversal of fortune story," says Jane Campion of her new movie, Holy Smoke. You can imagine the guys at Miramax coming out in goose bumps at such a perfectly beguiling description of how to spend millions of dollars. But anybody who has followed Campion's movie career would know it's not that simple at all. Her reversal of fortune may be about a couple of people stuck in a shack in the middle of an outback emu farm, but the zeitgeist suggests there's more to it than that. Maybe the fortunes of economic rationalism are reversing; maybe the white picket fence pendulum is about to start the long swing back to sanity and decency - if so, Jane Campion wants to know about it. Jane Campion cares.

"bemused delight"

The New Zealand-born, Sydney-resident director is just back from premiering and spruiking Holy Smoke in her home country. And she's still shaking her head in bemused delight at the outcome of the general elections there. "The Greens hold the balance of power now," she says. "And not just green-Greens but a real salad - the Wild Greens! Then there's Victoria I mean, what is happening?"

What indeed? Could it be - we wonder - that the world according to John Howard is no longer the absolute triumphal march of the strong over the weak, the rich over the poor? Could it be that people are, finally, sick to death of a political culture that celebrates meanness and cruelty? Perhaps - about a decade later than predicted - this is the beginning of the end for Gordon Gekko and Greed is Good?

Campion clearly hopes so. Her films - in their very different ways - are all about the effects on the human psyche of society's cruelty and meanness, intentional or otherwise (Sweetie, Portrait of a Lady). And the personal-political power battle between men and women is at the heart of both The Piano and Holy Smoke. But there's a new, overtly spiritual dimension to the quest for questions and answers in Holy Smoke. Campion nods. "If you're frightened to feed the soul..." she trails off for a moment. It's been a long haul on the publicity campaign trail, the Australian premiere was the night before and she's been up since dawn tending to the needs of her small daughter. She gathers her thoughts. "If you're frightened to feed the soul, if all you are interested in is material things, then I suppose economic rationalism has to be the result. I mean, I look at John Howard and I see this little face, full of fear (she pulls a creditable imitation of Howard's most Ronald Duck-ish expression) and..." she shakes her head.

"the arid zone of personal relations in modern Australia"

"I read something that Kim Beazley was saying the other day it was a sermon, I think, and he was talking about the need to think about what we care about. And that's interesting - a leader who's prepared to talk about things that matter. Because more and more, we're not looking after each other. And John Howard has such shallow concerns, I don't think he understands the real life of the nation. That people are willing to accept less if - in the end - we are going to mean more to each other." One of the underlying themes of Holy Smoke is the arid zone of personal relations in modern Australia - the Australia where, for two decades, it has been unfashionable to look after each other.

Campion set the beginning of the film, with dazzling lushness, in the over-heated, over-crowded, rowdy bazaars of India where beautiful young Ruth (Kate Winslet) goes seeking something that might make sense of her life. When the scene switches abruptly to deepest suburban Sans Souci and Ruth's family home, it is instantly apparent why she is on her quest. The contrast between the two locations - sweat, dust, garbage and smells to meticulous lawns, red brick order and polite bedding plants is pulverising.

"We do have this tidy, cleanliness compulsion in Australia," says Campion. "I have Indian friends who've come here and think it's wonderful - after India - 'but, Jane', they say, 'where's the life?'" And that's what Ruth is asking, both of herself and of the culture in which she was born. She, like so many young Australians, is dissatisfied with what her environment has to offer and is convinced that either there is something more or...

"as we become more agnostic there's nothing to replace it with"

Campion is aware of the country's youth suicide figures (one gold medal sport we're not so proud of) and of the vacuum she perceives at the centre of society where inner life has been replaced by credit cards and getting blasted on Friday nights. "As a culture, as we become more agnostic there's nothing to replace it with," says Campion. "I really do understand why kids are suiciding. Why they're taking drugs. When we were that age, whether we liked it or not, there was Sunday school, bible class, there was a belief system; you were allowed to feel things. Now, I think kids have a strong sense that there's nothing and drugs are really good for numbing your feelings."

The realisation of the fatal numbing effect of suburban life is what strikes Ruth - in a blinding, overpowering flash - when she discovers a guru during her Indian odyssey. Her ditzy girlfriend is appalled and frightened: she's just here for the dope, the silver anklets and maybe a bit of Kama Sutra kohl-eyed sex if she's lucky. Back home in Australia, she raises the alarm. "I think Ruth's mum and dad are stampeded by the friend," says Campion. "In truth, they're terrified by her hysteria. They are nice, ordinary people. They don't understand."

The inevitable outcome of their fear and ignorance is a violent reaction: they hire an American "exit counsellor" to get her back. PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel) is the latest in a long line of snake oil merchants to turn gobbledygook into a lucrative career. He promises to deliver their daughter safe and sound if she can only be persuaded to spend three days in seclusion with him while he re-adjusts her mind.

"the scene where they confront her is shocking"

Lured home, Ruth is full of the love and light that Campion, in her private life, seeks. "You have to be guided to a greater understanding," she says of her own continuing spiritual search. "When the veils of delusion drop away - as they do for Ruth - it can be very challenging, for other people. I think the scene where they confront her is shocking. You know, you have these happy clowns rounding her up..."

What is also being rounded up is the universally feared nightmare of a young woman who has seen, tasted - and now demands - personal freedom. "I think that's true of most cultures," says Campion. They love and fear the feminine principle. It is scary, dangerous and marvellous. All through history you can see how women have been controlled; and if they break free, how they're rounded up as witches, or as insane." Hollywood might view Campion in a similar way: she's beautiful, talented, gentle, determined and absolutely unwilling to compromise or take the easy route - or join the club. It would be so much easier if she would just be a nice girl and not frighten the moguls - or the godbotherers. "I'm not a joining sort of person. I don't join clubs. I've shopped around: I am inspired by the thinkers. I'm on a path. I do yoga every day - that's about it really."

It's the kind of strength and deceptive simplicity that shines from Ruth's eyes and which Harvey Keitel's PJ tries, in vain, to destroy. "I love the way he is as a man," Campion says of the actor who has now starred in two Campion movies. "He has such great qualities. There's a sort of beasty male energy that people relate to because he also has such tenderness - and he isn't afraid of it."

"Loving someone is a difficult task - especially for a mother."

In Holy Smoke, the unreconstructed '70s hipster, with dyed black hair and high-heel cowboy boots who is PJ is what is taken apart. In his destruction is also his ultimate salvation as, in a Campion-ishly quirky and humane way, love conquers all - even brattish cruelty. Campion plans one more movie - in New York, with "Nic" (Kidman) as a private detective - before taking five years off to be with her daughter. It's the kind of clear-eyed thinking one might expect of a woman who says of Ruth's mother, in Holy Smoke: "Loving someone is a difficult task - especially for a mother. It's a humbling experience. I love that character in the film and Julie Hamilton plays her with such..." she searches for an appropriate description before settling for "compassion." Hamilton's "mum" is an ordinary, decent woman caught up in a maelstrom of experiences that she doesn't begin to comprehend. "She really tries. She loves her daughter," says Campion. "When she gets her own spiritual wake-up it's wonderful." The director's face glows and breaks into the crinkles and creases of a face that is used to lots of laughter and tears. It's a great face and a great mind behind it. It's going to be a long five years.

Email this article

See our REVIEWS







Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2018