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Photograph by Gerald Jenkins

Road Warrioress: Kate Winslet seduces her deprogrammer in the Outback in Jane Campion's strange new film, 'Holy Smoke.'

Unholy 'Smoke' And Mirrors

Jane Campion's 'Holy Smoke' steams up the Outback

By Richard von Busack

SOMETIMES BY ACCIDENT, movies are separated at birth from their true soundtracks. What the new Jane Campion movie, Holy Smoke, needs is the greatest hits of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood. Check out Nancy and Lee's outré "Some Velvet Morning," in which Hazelwood, the boastful cowpoke, claims, "Some velvet morning when I'm straight/I'm going to open up your gate/and tell you about Phaedra." The classical story of Phaedra has nothing to do with the song--Nancy starts singing about flowers like mad Ophelia.

Similar appealing psychedelic gibberish turns up in Holy Smoke. Take the scene in which Harvey Keitel experiences a vision of an immense Indian goddess lying in the Australian desert half-dead from thirst and wearing a red cocktail dress and one boot.

Scenes like this cry out for their true music: the swelling strings, Hazelwood's muttered narration, Sinatra's sugary warbling. Campion uses both Angelo Badalamenti and Neil Diamond in his Emersonian stage instead ("I am, I said!")--a nice low-fat substitute, but it's not the real thing.

Holy Smoke is the story of a cult deprogrammer named P.J. Waters (Keitel), who is hired by a suburban Australian family. Their daughter, Ruth (Kate Winslet), went to India planning to become one of her guru's many wives. The girl is spirited off to the Outback for deprogramming.

Ruth may be brainwashed, but she's also dead shrewd. She understands P.J.'s vulnerable point: his machismo. He may be past 50, but he still considers himself the cock of the walk in his aviator shades, black dyed hair and Johnny Cash wardrobe. Ruth seduces him, thinking he can be manipulated, but P.J. has, underneath the surface vanity, a deeper core--that unruffled manhood viewed in Keitel's performance in Campion's best movie, The Piano.

Campion sees this story as a contest between men and women. She wants us to root for the power of womanhood. And in the nude, big-boned eroticism of Winslet she has a strong argument. But Campion also sees the showdown as a contest between youth and age, which it isn't. Really, this film is farce. P.J. and Ruth are stuck for the weekend together in a hot desert with nothing to do and few clothes to wear. It's a comedy about being attracted to someone you'd better not sleep with, if you know what's good for you.

Campion's arbitrary, mad flamboyance includes the uncommented-upon presence of a polysexual disco in the Outback, to which P.J. and Ruth and their friends roar away to visit in ornament-covered '70s cars. Is this a parody of The Road Warrior? Campion also adds an ill-advised scene in which Winslet dresses Keitel like a woman, to prove to him that he would never date a woman of his own age.

Trying to explain what a woman as impressive as Ruth would be doing in a guru's harem, Ruth says she appreciates the Hindi culture because "they're more honest in their hatred of women." It's not that I don't believe a woman would say anything that stupid--I mean, I've lived in the Bay Area for 20 years. It's just that I don't believe that Ruth would be stupid enough to say something like that.

This unique and ramshackle film gives up a perfect ending for a hackneyed coda. Every good impulse is countered with a corny one, and countered again by something inspired. Campion is exasperated by women's confusion as well as by men's vanity. She seeks out the nobility and tenderness in Keitel while admiring the bursting energy of Winslet. Sincerity leavened with ridiculousness always makes up for the lack of perfection--just like in the greatest hits of Nancy and Lee.

Holy Smoke (R; 119 min.), directed by Jane Campion, written by Jane and Ann Campion, photographed by Dion Beebe and starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose and the Palo Alto Square.

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From the February 10-16, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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