NYFF '99 ON THE SCENE: Sisters Campion Blow Spiritual "Smoke"
by Andrea Meyer
For her new film “Holy Smoke,” which screened over the weekend at the New York Film Festival, director Jane Campion teams up with her sister, co-writer Anna Campion, to tell a story about sex, ego and power in the deserted heartland of Australia. Kate Winslet plays Ruth Barron, a young woman who finds enlightenment in India, only to be dragged back home by her desperately conventional suburban family. Frantic with fear for their daughter’s soul, her parents hire P.J. Waters, the king of deprogrammers, a cynical American played by Harvey Keitel who rivals Wolf, his character in “Pulp Fiction,” in his slick ability to clean up messes.
“I think that the story is really about people’s journeys of the heart,” said older sister Anna at a press conference on Wednesday. While it begins as a comedy, with swooning girls in saris and the gross conventionality of suburban life held up for examination, the film becomes a potentially fatal struggle for redemption. “It was a decision to have an ironic tone in the beginning of the film that would shift,” Jane explained. “We wanted to show the complex qualities of these attitudes that you could have, that something could be very funny and very serious, too, depending on where you’re looking at it.”
Jane Campion, a director known for making daring films about unconventional relationships such as “Sweetie” and “The Piano,” was not initially drawn to the idea of exploring cults or their possible dangers. “I’m not actually fascinated by cults, but I am always interested in approaching the spiritual in life today,” she explained. She also stated that she was drawn to this particular story as a work “that tries to make some sense of the issues of spiritual feeling, work of spiritual life, faith, knowledge, love, eroticism. That was the idea, finding a story that would contain some of these things.”
Campion was also drawn to the possibilities offered by the relationship between an experienced older man and a young woman who is only beginning to discover the power of her beauty and sexuality. Campion found herself wanting to explore this dynamic but also “wanting to give the girl a voice.” She explained, “Very often, it’s really a girl that is the viewed and a man the viewer, but here we have a situation where the viewed talks back.” If P.J. begins in the mature, powerful role, this is quickly reversed in the film, as Ruth learns how to make him vulnerable.
Jane Campion conceived of P.J.’s character with Harvey Keitel in mind. “I realized it was a very challenging role for a Hollywood actor. I think a lot of them would have balked at it. Harvey really wanted to play it. He was quite happy to examine the things the film examined.”
In one scene, Ruth dresses P.J. up in a dress to show him how sexually undesirable he would be as a woman. Jane noted that Harvey “liked the red dress. Every actor likes to put on a frock.” Anna continued, “The day he put it on, all the men in the crew wore a dress, out of solidarity for Harvey.”
While the filmmakers auditioned hundreds of Australian women, in the belief that an unknown actress might be most effective for the part of Ruth, they ended up feeling that only someone as strong as Kate Winslet could hold her own against Keitel. “I think she’s an extraordinary young actress,” says Jane. “She’s got that sort of gift that even she doesn’t know what it can do.”
With these two powerhouses engaged in combat around such heavy issues as love and faith, and a script that continually startles, the Campion sisters had a guaranteed stunner for their first effort. When asked how the power struggle was reflected in their writing collaboration, Anna confessed, “I think when we first started out, Jane would take the believer’s side and I would take the exit counselor or brainwashing, deprogrammer’s side.” About their working relationship, Anna continued. “We were a bit like them, really, circling each other.” Jane added, “I think it’s great that we were sisters, that we are sisters. If I were working with another writer, I might take three times longer to say, ‘That sucks.'”