Photo by Greg Weiner”DID YOU READ THE JOURNALIST AND THE Murderer?” Jane Campion asks a few minutes into our conversation, invoking Janet Malcolm's definitive exposé of how journalists exploit the people they write about. “Pretty neat, that book. Very smart writer. I love her.” It is, I agree, a marvelous book, whose story — of a biographer who curries favor with his alleged-murderer subject only to turn on him in the end — no respectable writer of profiles could fail to be profoundly affected by. But I can't see what it has to do with Campion and me, sitting in the lobby bar of the Beverly Hills­adjacent Four Seasons chatting about her new film, Holy Smoke. “Well,” Campion suggests, “we're playing that out right now, don't you think?”

To be wary about the process is perhaps Campion's right after a long day of interviews. (Lest I forget she's had one, Harvey Keitel stops by: “Jane,” he says in the sort of hushed tone that's impossible to ignore, “if we ever do another film together, I'm going to make it my last film, because I'll never do another interview again — which means I'll never work again.”) Still, I try to object: Campion is, after all, a filmmaker, not a criminal, and I am, after all, an exceedingly friendly witness who counts herself among the women who regard her films, An Angel at My Table and The Piano in particular, with the same esteem Campion holds for the novels of George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë. (“They validate me,” she says.)

But she persists. “That's how it goes, you know — in the beginning you're kind of chuffed that people are interested in you, and you believe it. It's all so simple, really, so childish: Very simply and babyishly you trust them all and you say things thinking it all sounds so cute. And then,” she says, “you read it.”

With that, she laughs: The large, long, raucous laugh other people have written about before, most of them offering various interpretations of its function: nervousness, control, diversion, emotional masking. (One British journalist went so far as to label it “hysterical,” unaware, perhaps, of that word's particularly rich etymology.) The temptation is to offer another analysis — to assert that, just as Campion's characters negotiate the mined terrain of seduction and power, hers is a seductive and powerful laugh. But it also comes from her gut and takes over her face, which despite its patrician cheekbones and blue-eyed beauty conveys an unguardedness that makes you feel safe divulging secrets. So here's another theory: Jane Campion just really likes to laugh.

She is no more capable of suppressing that laugh than she is of concealing her opinion. On the other hand, “I'm an idiot,” she says, “because as soon as I say something I think I can stick with, I immediately realize that the opposite is true.” Which helps to explain why Holy Smoke so stubbornly refuses to yield any lessons in ethics. The story of a young Australian woman named Ruth (played by Kate Winslet), whose parents attempt to “rescue” her from a Hindu religious community they believe is a cult, Holy Smoke neither endorses nor indicts. The spiritual community that captivates Ruth may seem patriarchal and controlling, what with its charismatic “Baba” luring young women with his mesmerizing stare, but Ruth's family is certainly no better, nor is the adviser, P.J. (Keitel), to whom her mother and father deliver her for “deprogramming.”

“I'm not saying she isn't involved in a cult,” says Campion, who in the course of researching the film heard both sides of the story — gurus who transformed lives for the better and cults who tried to break their acolytes' wills. “I'm not sure. But I'm not sitting in judgment of any of them, because I do think that everybody has to address the situation of their spirit in their own time, and try to find some inspiration to follow, something to lead you. Some people do it by joining a very full-on religion, and they get lost in it, and some people do the same thing and just use it for what it's worth. What the film tries to say is that there isn't a simple solution to it. It's like a relationship — you don't just find the perfect person and then off you go. It's something you're going to be working on for the rest of your life. And you may find inspiration from different sources as well.”

CAMPION HERSELF FINDS INSPIRATION IN unexpected places, and the real-life stories she cites as muses do not always match up with what you think you saw onscreen. The strange and morally ambiguous relationship that evolves between Ruth and P.J., for instance, is based in part on a two- or three-night romance she had with a much younger man. “He had cystic fibrosis,” she tells me, “and I knew he wasn't going to live very long.” The laugh subsides and she goes quiet. “He was one of the most courageous people I ever met.

“Sometimes you get touched by someone's spirit and it helps you identify a different path in life that you never forget,” she continues. “It's one of those situations almost everyone has at some point, in which someone showed you some love and you didn't acknowledge it at the time, and you think about what courage it took for that person to do that, and you're ashamed that you missed it. It kind of haunts you.” I assume she's talking about Ruth's love. But no. “P.J.,” says Campion, “is probably the first man who ever loved Ruth.” Considering that what P.J. does to Ruth may in most company qualify as flat-out abuse, that's at least a complicated statement. Simplicity, of course, is rarely the hallmark of a great filmmaker.

The unruly women about whom Campion makes movies are not easy to fit into any ideological framework: Sometimes they're crushed by their own willfulness; other times, they “choose life,” as Holly Hunter's Ada put it in The Piano, and emerge whole. If they are avatars of feminism, it is a feminism that Campion finds impossible to articulate. “The laws of men and women in Western society are carefully unwritten,” she says. “And feeling them, facing up to them, is like the pain of having a baby — no one will ever tell you about it, really, because it's just beyond communicating. It's so bad, so big, so enormous, that you can't describe it or even believe it. In a way it's the same for women feeling the world, facing the world. I don't even talk about it, because it sounds like whingeing. But I'm not whingeing. I'm screaming.”

Which is to be distinguished from complaining. “I love being a woman,” she affirms. “It's a pretty good role, really, like being in the background of an amazing painting. The background isn't being focused on, so it's a good time; you have more freedom, you don't have to sit still, you're less examined. You don't have the responsibilities that you have in the foreground, responsibilities that can numb you creatively. A guy is told, 'You have to earn a living.' That's a life sentence of its own, and I would think that could be really horrible. I was told, 'You'll never have to earn a living — you'll never be able to, so don't even think about it.' There's a freedom in that.”

And yet as much as she loves men — and she explicitly does — she doubts she'll ever make a movie with a man at its center. “I was going to do one about Christopher Isherwood and his guru,” Swami Prabhavananda, “the one who chain-smoked and wore pointy shoes, but I couldn't get the script right. Isherwood being a gay artist — I guess that's as close as I'll get.” Her next film, an adaptation of Susanna Moore's erotic thriller In the Cut, she's co-producing with Lori Parker and Nicole Kidman, who will also star. “I like to be able to project myself into the parts,” says Campion, “and being a woman I like to therefore have heroines. We don't have many, you know? So I feel like it's my job. Not a crusade — just a natural thing to want to do.”

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