It‘s night, heaven knows where, and we’re looking out through the dusty, harshly illuminated windowpane of a rickety bus. The opaque glass is smirched with a jot of mustard-yellow paint that appears to have perished halfway up the slope to becoming a word in Sanskrit. Neil Diamond music (“Holly Ho-ly”) fills our ears: A kitschy ‘70s pop song redolent with ghosts of gospel. Nobody’s playing it on the bus; here in the realm of Jane Campion‘s Holy Smoke!, it’s the very music of the universe. Ruth (Kate Winslet) is an Australian beauty touring India. Men idly try to feel her up — their faces and hands so glisteningly inky they seem to be fashioned out of night air — but she calmly shoos them away. Ruth is never terrified, implies Campion. Her female traveling companion may be screechingly phobic, but Ruth is an adventurer; her fearless willingness to commit to her fascinations is what makes her heroic and worth watching.
The beauty of this overture is that it suspensefully prepares us for a journey into mystery without ever stooping to manipulation. A lesser director might have indicated that these dark-skinned men on the bus are sinister for being dark; as illuminated by Campion‘s eye, they are merely unknown. That Ruth isn’t particularly threatened makes her radical transformation in the next scene, when she meets a charismatic guru, all the more hair-raising and enigmatic. The guru‘s eyes glow like coals (a terrific, organic use of special effects); the soundtrack becomes a tunnel of Babel that matches Ruth’s racing pulse.
After she becomes this guru‘s hyperecstatic disciple, Ruth’s panicked family tricks her back to Australia, locks her in a remote house with PJ (Harvey Keitel), an American “cult exit specialist” whose three-day mission is to argue with Ruth, one-on-one, and break her of her presumed brainwashing. Their psychological tango is the molten core of the film, a comedic, sexually charged power struggle. Stories about cult survivors doing battle with their often depraved rescuers have been a familiar staple of movies since the early ‘70s — Ticket to Heaven, Split Image — but Campion and her co-writing sister, Anna, are less interested in creating another muckraking expose of the danger of cults or the ironies of rescue than they are in dramatizing the sheer cultishness of life everywhere. Viewed in Campion-scope (especially against the backdrop of this tale), there is a shared pattern hidden under all of our devotions, be they to God, rock & roll or the collection of knickknacks on our dressers. Ruth’s family is a deliriously toxic crew: sheepish, snide, superstitious, addicted to beer and television; small wonder Ruth bailed, one thinks, as they throw money at her “problem” and perpetually obey the strongest voice in the room.
Absurd candy-apple houses that look blindingly identical from the air, bad toupees, bronzed potbellies, poodle clippers — Holy Smoke!‘s attention to the ghastly swirl of such details in modern life is mercilessly funny, yet its people are never the butts of satire. Ruth’s mother, Miriam (Julie Hamilton), is particularly vivid: myopic, ungainly, scared of the world, often wildly confused (“The Lord‘s Prayer — that’s not the one that has the word death in it?”), a paragon of humanity‘s ills, yet arguably the noblest person in the film because she proves the most unselfish — her whole concern is for her daughter’s well-being. Keitel‘s PJ, by contrast, is a gnarlier piece of work. Like Ruth, he enters on the spreading wings of a Neil Diamond song, “I Am, I Said,” about the frog who dreamed of being a king, then became one. It’s PJ‘s anthem and his autobiography, and the song powers the camera’s giddy climb from his snakeskin boots to his beady, reptilian eyes. Keitel is so fearlessly willing to look ugly here that the very force of his willingness wins him an inner beauty, one to which Campion‘s eye is ideally attuned. PJ is led by his curiosity, and in this, he is deeply like Ruth. He doesn’t sit in judgment on himself; he fearlessly goes wherever his intuitions lead, come what may. The believer and would-be savior are thus matched heavyweights, and this makes their one-on-one all the more volatile and unpredictable.
What transpires is so rich that I‘ve seen this movie three times. The joy of being involved with two wholly truthful (if colorfully fucked up) characters is that exhilarating. Ideas, feelings and repartee fly in a sustained duet, but this is no “talking heads” movie. Ruth isn’t one to take her captivity lying down. What‘s more, because PJ so shamelessly fancies himself a rescuer of women, he leaves a glaring loophole in his own psychological fortifications through which she is able to attack him. The two navigate a topography fraught with ambush and role reversal.
Winslet’s growing power as an actress is beautiful in itself. One is used to seeing Keitel take risks — his nude scenes in Bad Lieutenant and Campion‘s The Piano were models of honesty in action. Here, he’s asked to submit to a farcical meltdown of his machismo involving one of Ruth‘s garments. Winslet’s body, by contrast, becomes the emblem of the film‘s moral force: When Ruth disrobes before PJ at one ambiguous turn, the gesture is both erotic and sinister. Whether she’s been driven mad by his tactics or is setting a deliberate trap because her beauty has made her bait for every controlling male on the earth‘s surface is an open question. In either case, she is confronting him with nothing less than the truth of herself.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s most recent film, Beyond the Clouds, is finally being released in the U.S. this week. It‘s as great as anything he’s ever done, and in one sense, even better: funnier, more buoyant, more forgiving of love‘s innate instability. Made in 1995, when the director was 82, it adapts a handful of stories from his book That Bowling Alley on the Tiber. Wim Wenders is billed as executive producer and (working from the same volume of stories) directed the pieces that constitute the film’s introduction, transitions and epilogue.
Antonioni‘s obsessions with the impermanence of love, and the beautiful but annihilating spaces that come between people, get a full workout. In the first story, a young couple meet by chance and have a “nonexistent” affair — they keep expressing their passionate attraction, but the relationship keeps failing to happen, owing to a missing puzzle piece, possibly within the man, possibly in the order of the universe. There’s a startling sequence in which the man, having finally bedded the woman, stops just short of touching her. His hand hovers over every inch of her skin, and the effect is far more erotic than in most films in which the lovers do caress. A similarly sensual encounter occurs between a film director (John Malkovich) and an acquitted murderer (Sophie Marceau). They consummate their attraction, yet the relationship itself dissolves by breakfast because each loner recognizes in the other an excess of tragic awareness.
Apart from a delicious abundance of entirely necessary nudity — that the body never lies, and about beauty it is particularly eloquent, would seem to be the valedictory insight of a genius in his mid-80s — what‘s striking is that the primary rhythms of the film are comedic. The climactic story, in which Vincent Perez tries to seduce Irene Jacob on her way to church, is particularly sublime in this sense. Belief in God and belief in nothingness are affirmed with equal fervor in one beautifully pitched choir note. Antonioni wrote in his published notes for this story that he loved its last line, but found it problematic: “It would be a stunning last line for a film, but I’m afraid for me it would make a better beginning for a film.” Given the magical, freeform anthology structure of this movie, he gets to have it both ways: Beyond the Clouds ends on a note of new beginnings.