Jane Campion’s battle of the sexes, in which sex itself is the primary weapon.
A feisty Kate Winslet stars as Ruth, a young Australian woman who falls under the sway of a guru of sorts while traveling to India. After tricking her into coming home by faking her father’s illness, Ruth’s family traps her in a remote shack with an American “exit counselor” named P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel).
Campion offers one of her trademark (read: difficult and disarming) explorations of human sexuality.
The narrative construct Campion uses to get Winslet and Keitel together is admittedly forced and problematic. Though Indian spirituality provides some of the movie’s most striking visual flourishes, it also feels an awful lot like cultural appropriation. Meanwhile, very few of the framing scenes with Ruth’s family – largely portrayed as wacky rubes – work at all. (Broad comedy is not exactly Campion’s milieu.) And yet when the focus is on Ruth and Waters – who go at each other like rabid dogs in heat – Campion offers one of her trademark (read: difficult and disarming) explorations of human sexuality.
Waters very much equates the authority he has with sexual power, even if he doesn’t directly wield it in his sessions with Ruth. It’s she, actually, who brings sexuality into the dynamic, and when she does so the power shifts in her favor. Before long, the ostentatiously masculine Waters finds himself pleading with Ruth while wearing lipstick and a dress.
The wonderful thing about Holy Smoke, however, is that it isn’t interested in declaring Ruth the “winner.” Instead, the movie represents a sexual awakening of sorts for both of its characters. Waters learns what sex can be when it’s separated from control, while Ruth comes face to face with the ramifications of combining sexuality with cruelty. And so therapy has taken place, albeit not exactly by the book.