Holy Smoke!: Jane Campion’s Battle of the Sexes

Jane Campion’s place in history has long been secured, thanks to her pioneering Oscar nomination for Best Director and status as the first woman to win the Palme d’Or. Yet a surprisingly solid portion of her already limited filmography has been dismissed as lesser efforts, critical and commercial slumps following her triumph with The Piano. Some of these titles have received long-overdue re-evaluations, such as her strikingly raw erotic thriller In the Cut. The most underrated title in her catalog, however, remains the unappreciated gem Holy Smoke, a startling and often hilariously brash battle of the sexes that sees Campion at her loosest and weirdest. 

Like many an aimless young woman, Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet) takes a backpacking trip to India in the hopes of finding inspiration. While there, she experiences a spiritual awakening at the hands of a guru named Baba and soon abandons her life in Australia to live with his circle of followers. Appalled by what they see as their innocent little girl’s indoctrination, her family tricks her into coming home and force her to spend the weekend with a deprogrammer. P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) is a brash American exit counselor who specializes in returning those he sees as brainwashed sheep back to reality. He promises Ruth’s parents that she’ll be back to her normal self after a weekend in his care.

Campion’s work has always focused on the experiences of women, typically those whose desires have been harshly denied or dismissed by their patriarchal surroundings. The Piano shows the ways the protagonist’s creative pursuits are deemed frivolous or distracting. In the Cut delves into the intrinsic taboo of a sexually active woman following her sensual drive to its logical conclusion. For Holy Smoke, Ruth’s longing is spiritual, a hunt for answers to the unknown that might be naïve in their solutions but are wholly relatable. To see her family rip that from her in an act of control masked as concern, then hand her over to an older man who condescends to her at every turn, makes for the film’s most heart-breaking moment. 

Holy Smoke stands out in Campion’s filmography for revealing  the ways that patriarchal power takes shape and disrupts all in its wake, not just the lives of women. All of Ruth’s brothers and their friends are heightened cliches of macho bros, with her father a weak and cheating bully who sees lying to his family as his birthright. Her mother is a pushover who always does what her husband says and seems barely able to function when away from the confines of her regular life. Even P.J., a man who positions himself as a figure of strength and reason, cannot help but descend into brutish cliché and posturing when challenged. His deprogramming tactics seem especially gendered in and out of context: he demands that Ruth remove her non-Western clothing and he belittles her beliefs as the fantasies of a little girl. 

Ruth is a woman of the ‘90s, a Gen X Girl Power figure who sees no issue with living her life freely and without attachments. She even blasts Alanis Morrissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’ while she drives. At first, she sees P.J. as a sad old man who can’t handle an independent woman’s whims. She’s petulant towards his tactics, understandably so given her age and the trauma she just experienced. Yet she’s also savvy, a woman of her time who has no patience for the forced civility of sexism that demands she follow the rules and keep her mouth shut. Whether or not her beloved Baba is truly a huckster seems beside the point. It’s the stripping away of autonomy that hurts. 

Her revenge is blunt, even juvenile, but startlingly effective as a pure manic display of man versus woman. It’s a battle of the sexes of almost primal dynamics. As he tries to break her down with logic, she goes for insults and wields her own sexuality as a tool. Eventually, P.J. has sex with her, and she coaxes him into wearing a dress and make-up. Campion has always made excellent use of Harvey Keitel’s particular brand of old-school manliness and the allure it holds under the female gaze; Holy Smoke and The Piano are perfect bedfellows in this regard. The qualities of P.J. that repel Ruth are also the ones she’s drawn to. He laments that once upon a time he was handsome but those days have passed, yet clearly there’s an allure to his inimitably craggy face and a mustache that’s straight out of the ‘70s. The fantasy of breaking down a blunt representation of the entire male gender is evident. P.J. crumbles with a startling speed that makes you wonder if he’s actually any good at his job. His partner, both professional and romantic (played by a sadly underused Pam Grier), seems wearily unsurprised that he’s unable to take on a woman who isn’t even old enough to drink in America. To put it bluntly, his weekend with Ruth may be the first time a woman has emotionally topped him. 

But revenge isn’t sweet for Ruth. Even in her moment of triumph, she feels overcome with guilt. By this point, P.J. is convinced he loves her, but she cannot reciprocate what she sees as an act of “defilement.” When she tries to run from his fevered proposal, he knocks her out and locks her in the trunk of his car, a return to the caveman simplicity of their earlier battles. The sudden reversal of power is restored through gendered violence, a painfully familiar climax. 

There isn’t much closure for the pair – but Holy Smoke ends on a hopeful note, one that believes there may, one day, be balance between this harsh binary of genders. It’s about as ‘90s as any film could get, but there’s something familiarly honest in this film’s take on an age-old issue. The generational and gender divide may shift but it always provides challenges that frequently revert to archaic notions we all like to think we’ve moved beyond. As Campion’s filmography so thoroughly conveys, the feminine pursuit for something more in life may meet its doubters but will never be stopped.

“Holy Smoke!” is available for digital rental or purchase.

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