THE SETUP: Young Australian backpacker Ruth (Kate Winslet), roughing it in India, falls under the sway of a hypnotic guru and believes she has found enlightenment. Ruth’s mother (Julie Hamilton) makes a panic-stricken trip to bring her back, telling the lie that dear old dad is dying. Ruth reluctantly accompanies her, and is furious when she learns her father is in perfect health. Even worse, her goofy family has enlisted the services of one P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel) to deprogram her and debunk the sway of the swami. Plopped down in a hut on a run-down emu farm in a desolate patch of the outback, Ruth and P.J. face off, each struggling with their vulnerabilities, pride, desires and fears.
KAREN: Here’s an original scenario: vulnerable, searching young woman falls under the sway of a charismatic older man who wants her for her brains. Sorry, I meant brains and body. In Holy Smoke!, we get not one but two older men, guru and guru-getter, entranced by a delicious young beauty.
RAY: Yes, but Winslet goes beyond movie-star beauty. She has a radiance that you don’t want to see tamped down. There’s something of the “old soul” about Winslet her characters are inevitably searchers.
KAREN: She may be wise beyond her years, but those years are inescapably tender. And this scenario is as stale as last week’s sourdough. And nothing can make it new not a star as unexpectedly curvy as Winslet, a male hero as unconventionally sexy as Keitel, or a setting as exotic as the outback. Although I will say that Campion tells a visually compelling story she does for locale what Meryl Streep does for accents.
RAY: The narrative itself is told unconventionally: Holy Smoke! is really two distinctly different stories. The first half of the film is comedic, with the culture shock of Ruth’s mother travelling to India, the return to the suburban ticky-tacky neighborhood called Sans Souci, and the sublimely un-self-aware family members who just want Ruth to be as she was.
KAREN: Yes, to be sublimely un-self-aware, like them. And then, once Ruth and P.J. are transported to desert isolation, stuck in a tiny, uncomfortable house with no means of escape, the film takes on more urgency Ruth can only rely on her wits and her cunning to show P.J. who’s most in need of spiritual guidance.
RAY: Campion also plays with one of the great myths of modern big-budget moviemaking that the much older man can attract the bounteously ripe and gifted young woman with a wave of his powerful hand.
KAREN: How about showing us a man who makes it clear that seducing a woman practically young enough to be his granddaughter is pathetically pitiful?
RAY: Wasn’t American Beauty that movie? And come to think of it, isn’t Holy Smoke! too?
KAREN: It may have started out that way but once the sheets get rumpled, we’re back in the same old sleepy clichés. It worked once upon a time in a movie like Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon, with an aging Gary Cooper and the divinely glowing Audrey Hepburn. But in that film, the older man was aware of just how inappropriate he was for the girl. In this version, the supposedly clueless young babe is the one with the strength and fearlessness to bring out the almost inevitably buffoonish reality of a thirty-five-year age difference.
RAY: Don’t you think Campion takes it too far with the red dress she makes Harvey don, near the end of the film, as part of the ritual humiliation Ruth imposes on him?
KAREN: That was one segment that at least held my interest: Ruth lipsticks him, stuffs him in one of her sheerest dresses, leaves him limping along the desert sands, proving the man will do anything for just a little bit more nookie. But I couldn’t enjoy this bizarre form of payback: because it is so abjectly ridiculous, it forces our allegiance back to the character Campion had turned into the enemy. Deliberate degradation almost always shifts the audience’s sympathy to the underdog. And that bugs me: P.J., who’s been sent to Ruth in a “professional” capacity, should not be seen as the underdog in the battle of the boudoir.
RAY: I think the character is set up to go beyond underdog to fool, and there’s little sympathy in that role.
KAREN: I’d like to hope that Campion intended this role-reversal to show that P.J. was willing to debase himself out of love. Few actors would be as brave as Keitel in deliberately allowing himself to look so foolish.
RAY: Do you think Campion might only be suggesting that a devil in a red dress was nothing more than a man trying to find his inner femininity?
KAREN: Perhaps that was her intention, but if so, it fell as flat on its face as poor P.J. did on his. I’d like to see more of these story lines flipped. When the tables are turned, it’s usually only briefly, before the woman turns into a killer (Nicole Kidman in To Die For) or a sex maniac (Susan Sarandon in White Palace) or a cradle-robber who must be punished for daring to lust after precious younger male flesh (Charlize Theron in The Cider House Rules). You’re a guy, Ray what are men so afraid of?
RAY: I’ve dated younger women. I’ve dated women my age. I think what you’re asking is, What are Hollywood screenwriters, directors, and producers afraid of?
KAREN: I wish I knew. And I’d like to point out that you didn’t say you’d ever dated anyone older. Are older women with sex appeal scary? Is it some kind of skewered Oedipal fixation? Mommy Fearest?
RAY: If you’re talking about my wish fulfillment, I think Hollywood would make far more entertaining films if they shook up our expectations of who ended up with whom in bed and in what variety of positions.
KAREN: That is indeed a lovely wish. I’ll pass it on to Central Casting, where they’ll chuck it in the recycle bin along with the resumés of all the actresses over 35.
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