Tuesday 12 September 2017

Cult Cinema #8: Holy Smoke (1999)

This isn't going to be a very long post. When it ends up in the Cult Cinema book, it'll be folded into the same chapter as Ticket to Heaven and Faults as deprogrammer movies.

Holy Smoke is what Jane Campion did after The Piano, and the second film Kate Winslet followed Titanic with after Hideous Kinky.Which are useful things to know, because it positions both director and star (and the other star, Harvey Keitel, for that matter) as forces in cinema who have had recent monster international hits with which they'll forever be associated. This is a Serious Film That Wants Critics To Like It, but it's not an indie, it's not a small film, it's a film from when Miramax movies (and here in collaboration with Film4) were at the top of their game. This is a film from the stable that produced Sliding Doors and Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient, .Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and Good Will Hunting and The Talented Mr Ripley and if you look at a list of the other Miramax films from about say 1993 to 1999 you'll see any number of critical darlings, but more specifically films that won awards and box office receipts. You'll also see a bunch of films that pretty much define 90s cinema, and which are, even two decades later, ones we don't generally think of much anymore. And Holy Smoke is bang in that bracket, even with its auteur director.

Holy Smoke is not like The Piano. You get contemporary pop hits (obviously inserted for the soundtrack CD, see), and 1990s comedy Australians (see Strictly Ballroom and Muriel's Wedding), and hallucinatory sequences ripped from the Baz Luhrmann/Danny Boyle playbook, and post-ironic captions, and it's just slightly too long, and it's an 18 certificate from that final era when you could still have award-winning multiplex fillers with 18 certificates. You get comedy and quirk mixed with drama in a way that fits well alongside films like A Life Less Ordinary, which bombed (although I ended up seeing it twice, on dates), and to be honest, Holy Smoke wasn't exactly a world spanning success either. Holy Smoke is a film designed to appeal to people who were in theit twenties when it was released, to wit: people my age. It cleaves closely to a weird sort of formula that means that, even though I didn't see it when it came out, it's absolutely a film made while I was a postgrad. It is in that respect an unremarkable product of its time.

Which is a long-winded way of saying: man, is Holy Smoke a late 90s film.
Australian student Ruth (Winslet) goes off on a gap year to India; there she meets a guru and finds enlightment, starts calling herself Nasni and won't come home. Her mum and dad (Julie Hamilton and Tim Robertson), concerned that she's been brainwashed, lure her home by pretending that her dad is dying of cancer or something, and deliver into the hands of cult deprogrammer P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), who uses the same basic system we've seen in Faults and Ticket to Heaven. As in Faults, this gets flipped on  its head, but while in the former movie that's played for chills, here it gets blown up to a wider, if everso slightly muddled, allegory.

Part of it is that while Ruth insists on wearing a saree, rocks a bhindi and insists on being called Nasni (until she doesn't, which is very early on), she's also pretty normal in every other respect. She talks about wanting to "marry" Baba (the guru, who only appears very briefly at the start of the film), but later explains that Baba marries everyone, because he's about love. She still sings along to Alanis Morrissette (and she sings along to "You Oughta Know" for ages, and it's painful, a kind of musical product placement) and talks normally, and swears, and smokes. She's not at any point a cult zombie and when she realises she's been played, she flips out, but wouldn't you if you got made to fly thousands of miles and then be imprisoned by some American with a creepy moustache? Wouldn't you try to escape? She's been kidnapped and unlawfully imprisoned. She flips out, quite reasonably. And as she flips out, she lambasts her parents for their hypocrisy, their own failings and lies.

So right from the beginning, unlike those other cult deprogrammer films I've looked at, the ethics of those hiring the deprogrammer are in doubt, and the deprogrammer himself is morally somewhat dodgy. He's a slick operator, surely, full of himself, not above taking up Ruth's sister-in-law Yvonne (Sophie Lee) on the offer of a sneaky blowjob, and not above sleeping with Ruth when she breaks down and offers herself to him.

And then she breaks him down.

And although the film is a good twenty minutes longer than it has to be,  and meanders like you would not believe in the last act, and while the ending doesn't sell anything, this is the most interesting part of the film, because he basically becomes her slave, and in fact she deprograms him. She has him treat women with respect, and has him at one point wearing a dress and lipstick, and he becomes dependent on her and he says he loves her, but even that isn't it.
The idea, I think, is that he's been brainwashed by patriarchy and toxic masculinity and all those other terms that no one used so much when Holy Smoke was made, and that by breaking him down and creating in him the conditions for a conversion experience, she converts him to something better. And the problem is that it's not really earned, it doesn't come from a reasonable place, and the script is so set on showing us the antics of the comedy quirky Australians and that, that while it has interesting things to say (a visual comparison of the guru and Ruth's old boyfriends is thought provoking, for example, but isn't capitalised on) its happy ending doesn't make real sense.

I like the idea that maybe getting yourself a guru and finding "Eastern Religion" (like that's even a monolithic thing) isn't anything special, and that maybe Ruth just wanted to go somewhere where she's happy (she ends up working in an animal rescue in India), and I like the idea that we are all brainwashed by the society we're in, which is a pretty sound concept. But Holy Smoke isn't the film to get that idea across. It's too shallow, cleaves too closely to the conventions of its era and genre. It's too concerned with selling itself to moviegoers really to sell itself.