Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Set to the full-throated, anthemic bombast of Neil Diamond's "Holly, Holy" (the live version), the delirious opening minutes of Jane Campion's Holy Smoke echo the singer's combustible mix of spirituality and kitsch, viewing a young woman's enlightenment as a sort of exotic pop adventure. Campion makes it easy to see how Kate Winslet, wonderful as an impetuous yet headstrong teenager, could fall for the Fruitopian vision of "absolute love" offered by an Indian guru named Baba. But the moment the song ends and her asthmatic mother wheezes through the Delhi streets, the film's peculiar spell is broken, its story splitting into two irreconcilable halves: one a fierce psychosexual melodrama similar to Campion's The Piano, the other a typically grotesque Australian comedy. Buried under all the clutter is a pointed theme about how society works to eradicate any unconventional belief system, no matter how much spiritual bliss it has to offer. Once Winslet makes the transition from rebellious and melancholic to peaceful and meditative, her parents are so alarmed that they force her back to Sydney and hire American "cult exiter" Harvey Keitel to snap her out of it. Their three-day deprogramming sessions, in the cramped space of an outback hut, are by far the most compelling material in Holy Smoke, as each angles for psychological advantage. Though the result of their tête-à-tête is predictable, especially for those familiar with Campion's torrid feminism, Winslet and Keitel attack and recede with almost primal intensity. But their palpable chemistry is continually undercut by her cartoonish extended family, whose flying toupees and distended bodies are meant to represent sickly, unnatural suburban life. It's a cheap point, made more effectively in fellow Aussie Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Walkabout, which deftly balanced natural beauty against the pollutants of urban life. For all its attractions, Holy Smoke is a tonal mess, too incoherent to get back in sync with Diamond's majestically trashy epiphanies.


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