Women Directors Special: Soul Survivor

Film still for Women Directors Special: Soul Survivor

Maybe it's just a coincidence, but some of the most audacious, controversial and imaginative films to premiere this year were directed by women. In this issue's special focus we highlight three of the best: Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, Catherine Breillat's Romance and newcomer Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. Here, Kate Pullinger applauds as Campion loosens her period-dress stays and returns to present-day Australia to cast Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel in a war of wits, offering a rich meditation on belief, desire and novel uses for livestock

One of the most startling things about Jane Campion's new ffilm Holy Smoke is the way Kate Winslet looks in it. She is possessed of a full-blooded, amorous beauty and, in a movie world where we've become accustomed to actresses whose ribs look likely to break through their skin at any moment, this beauty is like a slap across the face - "Here I am," Winslet is saying, "and I'm real." In Ruth Barron, Winslet's character, Jane Campion has created a young women's heroine, more potent and sexy than a thousand Lara Crofts and Ally McBeals.

Holy Smoke is a tale of Girl Power, without all the crass contradictions that slogan usually implies. In Campion's previous two ffilms, the Oscar-winning The Piano (1993) and the bleak and unpopular Henry James adaptation The Portrait of a Lady (1996), the female characters are complex, tenacious and resolute, but they are made to suffer for their wilfulness. In The Piano Ada (Holly Hunter) is rescued from her muteness as well as her marriage by the noble savage Baines (Harvey Keitel), but not until she has paid a heavy price in humiliation and pain; in one harrowing scene her husband takes up an axe and chops off Ada's index ffinger. In The Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman) is forced to flee her disastrous marriage to the vicious and mendacious Gilbert Osmond (John Malkovich), only to face certain ignominy, shut out of polite society. In Holy Smoke Ruth Barron is victorious in her battle with P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), and that victory is entirely of her own making. All three ffilms are about strong-willed women who make complicated decisions, but in Holy Smoke Ruth Barron is able to go her own way, to know her own mind, to not be beholden to any man, to make her own mistakes and ffind her own solutions. Ruth Barron is a Campion heroine with the masochism excised.

Both The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady are period ffilms, set in the second half of the nineteenth century. Seen from the vantage point of Holy Smoke the thematic crossover between these two ffilms becomes clearer: there is Ada struggling with her husband Stewart in the mud and rain of colonial New Zealand; meanwhile, in Rome, Isabel Archer ffights against the louche gold-digger she has married. Both women are outsiders - Ada, with her illegitimate child in tow, married off to a man she's never met in a country she's never seen; Isabel, an American in Europe, awkward and ambitious, unable to detect duplicity - and both women wrestle against their fates doggedly, corseted as they are by the conventions of their time.

Much of the dramatic tension in these two ffilms arises out of the contemporary viewer's horror at the narrow parameters of the lives of Ada, whose muteness is symbolic of her lack of power, and Isabel, who ffinds she is imprisoned by the wealth she thought would give her freedom. While the pressure on these women to conform comes from society, the pressure on Ruth Barron is imposed directly by her family. In a moment of real horror, Ruth is surrounded by the men of her family who join hands and corral her as though she is an unruly farm animal, forcing her to comply with their demands. But the crucial difference for Ruth Barron is that, in the end, she is allowed to determine her own fate.

Holy spirit

The curious modern-day pre-credit prologue of The Portrait of a Lady - Australian girls dancing with each other in a forest, whispering, smiling - contained a hint of Campion's frustrations with the restrictions of the nineteenth century; in Holy Smoke it's as though those girls have been set free to spin a tale more raucous and punchy than Henry James could have foreseen, an escape from bonnets and stays into a story that is achingly contemporary.

The magnifficent credit sequence sets up the story. Ruth is 19 when she travels to India. In a Delhi street she is transffixed when a group of young western women dressed in white saris parade by, and soon Ruth herself is worshipping the beloved guru, Baba. Through Baba she ffinds Divine Love and, in one ecstatic scene, is blessed by the guru, who bestows on her the power of the third eye. This entire opening sequence is sublimely cinematic, the roaring colours of India and the mad dancing of Ruth and her new friends set to a resounding soundtrack - Neil Diamond singing 'Holly Holy' in his inimitable overblown post-Elvis/pre-Meatloaf style.

The sect or cult Ruth joins features briefly in the ffilm and we are left with only a vague idea of who the Hindu mystic Baba and his followers might be. Ruth intends to marry Baba in a group wedding, but we are told little else. This vagueness about the exact nature of Ruth's spiritual conversion is a little annoying initially; it's as though the scriptwriters - Jane Campion and her elder sister Anna - did some research and then decided: "Oh, India, saris, perfumed hair - that's enough, isn't it?" Has Ruth joined a true cult or has she adopted a form of Hinduism, one of the world's great religions? Is it only her parents' misperception of an alien culture that leads them to assume she's been taken in - duped - by the guru? Whatever the answer, it's clear from early on that Ruth's faith is benign and that the reaction of her parents is over the top and unnecessary.

Religious cults and families desperate to save their brainwashed children are the stuff of American television movies. When I was a teenager in North America - in the wake of Charles Manson and Jonestown, footage of which P .J. shows Ruth and her family one evening - we feared the cults; in Montreal at the end of the 70s the Moonies were actively recruiting in the underground shopping malls and my student friends and I used to dare each other to speak to them without being converted on the spot. Some of my more impoverished friends took up their offers of free meals at their communal houses; they would return to us with hilarious stories of sincere and chanting supplicants. The ffigure of the deprogrammer loomed large - these were the men your parents hired to save you from a life of flowing orange robes and baldheadedness. It did not occur to us that there might be an alternative spiritual path worth pursuing, that enlightenment could come from outside the established Judaeo-Christian axis. This is the context in which the Barron family operates, and which Campion sets out to challenge in this ffilm.

But the question of whether or not Ruth has joined a cult is not, after all, the real meat of the story; that is reserved for the confrontation between P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), the American 'cult exiter' or deprogrammer, and his unwilling client, Ruth, once her mother has lured her home to Australia. With a record of "180 successes and a 3 per cent recidivist rate", P.J. Waters is the best 'cult exiter' in America, hence the world; for a fee of $10,000 the Barrons purchase his services, a three-day intensive treatment programme.

Holy Smoke is about the contradictions and complications of spirituality, a timely commentary on the West's continual misappropriation of eastern mysticism. We don't understand Ruth's conversion, but it is evident that, to her, it is sublime; you only have to look into her face to see the truth of that. As they embark on the recovery programme, P.J.'s voiceover says, "They're lost and they don't know it yet"; he is speaking of people like Ruth, cult members who have been manipulated without realising it. But the problem with P.J. is that while he can show Ruth she is lost, he is unable to show her the way home again. Although he sets himself up as an authority on spirituality, a kind of secular priest, he offers no spiritual alternative - he can't. He'd be replacing one false set of beliefs with another. And so Ruth is consigned to spiritual oblivion. "The love is all gone," she moans when she is at her lowest point. "I'm heartless."

As a general rule I try to avoid ffilms about spirituality, ffinding most ffilm-makers' attempts to look at faith consistently embarrassing - It's a Wonderful Life (1947) is profound enough for me. Even more perplexing are the western ffilms such as Little Buddha or Kundun that attempt to explain or campaign on behalf of eastern religion. But by side-stepping the facts about Ruth's conversion and showing us only her happiness, Campion allows us to draw our own conclusions, to see for ourselves the contradictions and inconsistencies as well as the pleasures of faith. And she spares us the details of the hippie quest, as explored in that other Kate-in-search-of-truth ffilm, Hideous Kinky.

Home truths

In many ways Holy Smoke is a return to the territory of Campion's earlier ffilms Sweetie (1989) and An Angel at my Table (1990). There's a similar wildly eccentric family in the background and a vision of the antipodean suburbs as a kind of wallpapered inferno. At family gatherings a large sheep moves around the room, a bowl of crisps conveniently balanced on its back. One of Ruth's two brothers, Tim (Paul Goddard), is gay and his boyfriend is always present; this relationship is not commented on, as though the screaming all happened a long time ago and now everyone just lives with it. Yvonne (Sophie Lee), Ruth's sister-in-law, confesses to P.J. that when her husband makes love to her she stares into the drawer of her bedside table where she keeps a miniature gallery of photos of movie stars; "Oh Tom," she cries out in the heat of the moment, "Oh Brad", "Oh Matt." As in Sweetie, Campion's vision of this naive and unworldly family - the father's secret affair with his secretary, the half-sister hidden away - verges on the mocking, but in this instance is saved by the exuberance of the characters and their penchant for dressing up and heading out to party. Ruth's mother Miriam (Julie Hamilton) maintains throughout a kind of rumpled, sweaty dignity.

Despite the setback of being back home, away from Baba, Ruth radiates happiness and life. Dressed always in her lovely white sari, she drives out to her aunt's farm, singing along to Alannis Morissette at the top of her lungs. Radio still blasting, she gets out of the car and dances across the paddock to where her mother is watching. Unbeknownst to Ruth, the family has a plan: they hand her over to P.J. Waters.

From here on the ffilm becomes a tense two-hander as Ruth and P.J. slug it out. Holed up alone together in the Half-Way Hut, an old jerry-built cabin with an outdoor shower in the middle of the vast Australian desert, P.J. pontificates endlessly, quoting a mishmash of sources to make his point, from Verdi operas to the Upanishads. In scenes strongly reminiscent of The Piano - Ada and Baines holed up in Baines' cabin, bartering piano lessons and sexual favours - Ruth and P.J. struggle for power, creating a highly charged and claustrophobic atmosphere. P.J. insists that he and Ruth have embarked upon a Socratic dialogue, that he is going to take her into the dark cave in order to enable her to see the light. As far as Ruth is concerned, P.J. is full of shit.

As in scenes of interrogation in countless other movies, P.J. attempts to break Ruth. In this hermetically sealed world - P.J. has forsworn his usual deputy - the two characters become gladiatorial, continually upping the stakes. If the story has its longueurs, this is where they occur, when the ffilm slips from the truly cinematic towards the theatrical - two people in a dark room, arguing. Campion has always been a literary film-maker, but not in a theatre-bound sense (her parents work in the theatre and her father, Richard Campion, is credited on this ffilm as 'dramaturge'). Of all films about writers, An Angel at my Table, which is about the novelist Janet Frame, has the truest cinematic vision of the ecstasy of sitting alone in a room, typing. Campion thinks of herself as a literary writer; she has published short stories as well as two novels based on her own ffilms - Holy Smoke, co-written with Anna Campion, and The Piano, which I co-wrote. But her real home is the cinema; as yet, novel-writing remains secondary.

Desert hearts

When things threaten to become too intense in the Half-Way Hut, Campion and her cinematographer Dion Beebe take us outside and show us the desert. P.J. takes away Ruth's shoes so she cannot escape - the burning earth is a true barrier between the Hut and the outside world. In the end the desert - where else? - is the place where P.J. has his epiphany. I can't watch an Australian ffilm in which battered old cars appear on the stony horizon without thinking of Mad Max, but in its use of the desert as a kind of Holy Hell or spiritual battleground Holy Smoke has as much in common with Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout as Beyond Thunderdome.

P.J. tries to show Ruth the shallowness of her experience by stripping away its trappings - most symbolically her white sari, which he hangs up outside to flap in the wind, empty, as though if she no longer wears the uniform she'll no longer possess the identity. But Ruth makes P.J. see that he wears a uniform himself, with his dyed hair and moustache and his black shirt and jeans. When Ruth's family resorts to trooping out the family cruciffix and a barely remembered rendition of the Lord's Prayer ("It's not the valley of death, is it?"), their spirituality is shown to be stumbling and barren; their name is Barron after all. P.J. does succeed in making Ruth question everything; her innocence is transformed into cynicism, she becomes tougher and less tractable. In the course of their time together they become more and more cruel to each other, P.J. intent on destroying Ruth's faith, Ruth intent on destroying P.J. as a professional and, ultimately, as a man. They argue about who hates the opposite sex more: is it Ruth, who ridicules P.J. as an ageing Lothario, calling him "tampax tool"? Or P.J., who defends himself by saying he "loves the ladies" - "The ladies," Ruth spits back at him.

The fact of the matter is that, compared to Ruth, P.J. is old. If the ffirst revelation of Holy Smoke is Kate Winslet and her lovely body in a world of stick-thin actresses, the second revelation is this: Holy Smoke is a meditation - a counter-attack - on the increasingly ludicrous Hollywood convention of pairing decrepit male actors with starlets young enough to be their grandchildren. (Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine, Clint Eastwood in True Crime and Sean Connery in Entrapment come to mind.) P.J. is an old guy with dyed hair and a scrawny neck. He desires Ruth because she is young. "Do you like my personality or my breasts best?" she asks him. "Right now, your breasts," he admits. When he asks, inevitably, "How was it for you?" she replies, "Interesting. Historically." "I was young once and handsome too," he says, "you would have been impressed." She lampoons his desire for her, the younger woman, and the fact that he is betraying his girlfriend, "someone his own age".

This is where Holy Smoke feels most acutely contemporary, where we get the strongest sense of Jane and Anna Campion laughing up their sleeves. Ruth doesn't go for P.J. because he is powerful and authoritative and fatherly; she goes for him because she has spotted his Achilles heel - he is unable to control his libido. The moment Ruth sees this, he is lost.

Age of enlightenment

Then P.J.'s girlfriend shows up. Played by the iconic Pam Grier and her inch-long lime-green ffingernails, Carol has P.J.'s number; she can see at a glance what's been going on and she does not approve. Although her part is frustratingly small, and her time on screen brief, Grier comes along as though to show us the Older Woman in all her glory, pointing out along the way just how deluded P.J. has become.

But of course with Harvey Keitel Jane Campion has her cake and eats it too. As in The Piano, the audience gets an eyeful of Harvey's naked square butt. P.J. may be old but, yes, he's horny. And, indeed, like Ada and Baines, P.J. and Ruth progress to lessons, only of a more explicit nature; Ruth teaches P.J. how to kiss. When, earlier in the ffilm, Ruth's sister-in-law Yvonne offers herself up to P.J., she falls to her knees and gives him a blow-job. Now, as Ruth's 'teaching' progresses, it's P.J. - giving up on any notion of remaining in control of his treatment programme - who ffinds himself on his knees, his face buried under Ruth's skirt. She issues a stern edict: "Slowly."

In Keitel, Campion has found an actor who is equal to her truculent heroines, both Ada in The Piano and Ruth in Holy Smoke. His performance in Holy Smoke (P.J. was written with him in mind) is an extraordinary exploration of ageing masculinity, at once ludicrously macho and sweetly vulnerable. In The Portrait of a Lady John Malkovich's Osmond was too familiarly villainous, too one-dimensionally cold - with his goatee and his plush smoking jacket he even looked like the devil. In Holy Smoke Keitel's P .J. is multi-faceted and unpredictable. With its subject matter of gurus and enlightenment, this story could have taken place any time since the 60s. And yet if it had been set prior to the present day, P.J. Waters would not have been quite so ready to be messed with, quite so world-weary and willing to have his mistakes shown up by a mere girl. He is a man at the end of his tether, at the end of his century.

It is diffficult to know which of the two actors becomes more exposed during the course of Holy Smoke. Is it Keitel who, after establishing himself in The Piano as a late-developing romantic lead, appears here looking long past his prime? Or is it Winslet, her body weight subject to all manner of rude inquiry, appearing here naked and pleading?

While Holly Hunter and Nicole Kidman gave tightly controlled, unyielding performances in The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady, Kate Winslet's Ruth Barron comes at us in a hot blast of freedom, youth and innocence. It is hard to remember an actor's face showing such pure, unfettered joy. Although her family is determined to save Ruth from the clutches of the dirty foreigners, Ruth's vision of India and the spiritual enlightenment she has achieved there has an abiding sincerity. She is terribly young - who knows what she'll grow up to believe in? When they are at the lowest ebb in their struggle, P.J. writes the words "Be kind" across Ruth's forehead. In a world where religious clarity and spiritual purity seem like impossibilities, these words are the bottom line for both P.J. and Ruth - as well as, one suspects, the film-maker.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012