Jane Campion is an exasperating filmmaker. She makes compelling – if uneven – films in a style so affected that it takes real effort to wade through her pretensions. Her best-known film, The Piano, all but drowns in portentous pictorialism, but it also contains two remarkable performances (by Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin) and manages, almost despite itself, to evoke the Bronte sisters’ morbid romanticism more effectively than any adaptation of their actual novels.
Her films return again and again to the intricacies of sexual power, the way that we use love and sex to control – or wound – our partners. She creates rawly emotional situations that she never flinches from probing at length and draws brave, revealing performances from her actresses (though she’s much less effective with men). Taken a scene at a time, her work can be stunning, but her films never cohere: her tone shifts haphazardly from moment to moment, and her stylistic extravagance overwhelms her storytelling. Worse yet, her fanatical attention to surface detail (you can all but smell Hunter’s unwashed hair in The Piano) gets lost when it matters most: when Hunter sits at her piano, we hear the tinkly new age air pudding of Michael Nyman rather than something a nineteenth century pianist might conceivably play.
Her new film, Holy Smoke, is poised between farce and sexual melodrama: Strindberg’s "Miss Julie" with pratfalls. A young Australian woman (Kate Winslet, in a breathtaking performance) joins a cult while touring India. Her concerned family – a doltish crew, so broadly caricatured that they could be an Aussie "Married with Children" – hires Harvey Keitel (fleshing out his Pulp Fiction cameo) to deprogram her in a grueling, isolated three day session. This turns into a chess game played in bed, as they struggle to dominate each other.
The opening – Winslet’s trip to India – is so awful that it suggests self-parody. It’s a compendium of all of Campion’s worst impulses as a filmmaker: dubious music (tourists ecstatically dancing to, of all things, Neil Diamond’s "Holly Holy"), turgid pace, pointless slow motion shots so "artful" in their beauty that they stop the film dead in its tracks.
The film shifts gears abruptly as we return to Australia and meet the family. Campion aims for satire here, playing the family as grotesques. Campion can be quite funny – her deadpan short film "Passionless Moments" is worthy of Monty Python – but the jokes here are cruel: she encourages us to laugh at characters she hasn’t bothered to flesh out. While this makes Winslet’s flight from her family completely understandable (given the choice between them and a cult, I’d head for Waco), it undermines the film by keeping us at a safe remove from their concern for her.
Once Keitel arrives – his comic macho swagger accompanied by Neil Diamond’s "I Am, I Said" – the film stops lurching from (unintentionally funny) drama to (unfunny) comedy and finally finds its tone. The process of deprogramming a cultist lends itself beautifully to an exploration of domination and subjugation, and the disparity in the ages of Keitel and Winslet adds a disturbing dimension to the sexual gameplaying. The film comes to feel like a woman’s rewriting of Last Tango in Paris, with Winslet fearlessly plumbing emotional depths surprising for an actress so young. Keitel rises to her challenge – primarily by dropping the macho shtick – but it’s Winslet’s film: she goes so far that the film can barely contain her.
"Something really happened here," says Winslet near the film’s end, and she could be speaking for us as well. Despite Campion’s wavering tone, her reliance on easy cliches and cartoon characterizations, her beautiful shots that go nowhere, the film works. By the time it’s over, we’ve experienced something: something complex and forceful, something many much better films never approach.