Being Kind - Holy Smoke

Jane Campion’s latest heroine is seeking the truth. She believes she has found it in the loving eyes of an Indian guru, Baba, a man her Australian friends teasingly describe as not exactly handsome. But before she can freely explore her newly discovered belief she is forced to return home, to family and to the mythic heartland of Australia – its remote desert outback. During this return, where most of the dramatic action of the film occurs, the question of truth – What is it? Where is it? Who possesses it? – is turned against the heroine. The plan, devised by her interfering family, is that, with the help of a professional cult ‘exiter’, the superior truths of home – family and place – will break through the delusory exotic mystification which has brainwashed the heroine. She will become herself again, her old self, her real self. The plan ultimately backfires. It is the others who are broken while our heroine remains a stranger at home. She returns to India, less sure of the truth than before, but more confident of her capacity to search, now more compassionately.

Most of Jane Campion’s heroines are, in one way or another, displaced persons: travellers, migrants, exiles. Ada (The Piano, 1993) was uprooted from her native Scotland and shipped to New Zealand like a piece of cargo. Unlike the man she was to marry, she did not seek to impose her foreign identity on this alien landscape, making the new place succumb to her will; nor did she attempt to fit in. Ada remained a stranger in a strange land, absorbed in herself and her music. Isabelle (The Portrait of a Lady, 1996) was a naïve young American woman ready to seek her grand but abstract purpose on the European continent. The idealism which accompanied her European travels was transformed via the scheming of her more worldly companions and confidantes into a trap, her freedom of movement a short-lived illusion. Married (not by force but through deceit) to a corrupt, decadent, cynical European, Isabelle becomes a virtual prisoner. Janet (An Angel At My Table, 1990), based on the autobiographical Janet Frame, is also a traveller abroad, though lacking Isabelle’s confidence. She leaves New Zealand to gain a writer’s experience of the real world, that is, the world of Literature – England, France, Spain. But Janet is a terrible traveler, beginning with the debilitating seasickness which restricts her movements aboard ship and ending with the disastrous romantic liaisons which ensnare her. There is little about her broadening experience of ‘overseas’ which could be called exotic. Campion’s only other Australian film, Sweetie (1989), is the exception. Equally as trapped as the other heroines, Sweetie (played by Genevieve Lemon) is not, however, a woman on the move. There is one significant journey in the film, a car trip to an unnamed and deliberately generic outback location, but Sweetie herself is tricked into staying behind at home while her sister, sister’s boyfriend and father drive away. I will return to this section of the film in more detail later. For now I just want to note that although Sweetie does not leave her homeland she is, nonetheless, a homeless woman, literally. She first turns up at her sister Kay’s house, having broken a window to get in. She is unwelcome here, unwelcome at her parents’ home and lacking the resources to live anywhere else. Much of this film is about the problem of where to put Sweetie, a woman who is in the way.

In this paper I want to think about the relationship between woman, place and belonging as it is played out in Holy Smoke (Jane Campion, 1999). The heroine, Ruth (played by Kate Winslet), is another young woman who, rather like Isabelle, but in a more postmodern context, is seeking her purpose abroad. The lyrical opening of the film sees Ruth aboard a crowded bus in India, peering out a steamy, bead-fringed window, her view (also ours) partially obscured by the swaying beads. She brushes away the unsolicited stroke of a man’s hand on her neck. An attractive, blonde Western woman, she attracts attention without trying. Like the other New Age hippies she is soon drawn to, Ruth has travelled to the East for the heady encounter with otherness it promises. She arrives a tourist but is, unexpectedly, so deeply touched by this otherness (in the form of the guru) that she decides to stay, to convert her faith to this Eastern form, to take an Indian name. By the end of the film Ruth will have returned to India – though not to the cult which initially entrances her – but with less naïve enthusiasm, less desire for otherness per se, and more grounded questioning of her life’s purpose. But for the main part of the film this spiritual sojourn away from home is interrupted by a deceitfully orchestrated return. Ruth’s ‘exile’ occurs, not abroad but at home. Holy Smoke actively deconstructs the concepts of both home and nation.

After the visual splendour and sensuousness of the opening scenes in India, set to the rapturous strains of Neil Diamond’s “Holy Holy”, the camera swoops down upon a rigid grid of identical, red-roofed, suburban houses, squatting firmly on the lawns which line the arrow-straight bitumen roads of Sans Souci, Sydney. The visual contrast between the locations is extreme: even before we are introduced to Ruth’s family (significantly named Barron), our first impression of Australia, via this contrast, is that it is worth escaping. A sense of drabness, conventionality and sterility pervades the streetscape. In the Indian scenes, life is lived in the streets. There is no hint of the private. Here in Sans Souci it is the public which is erased: people shelter, privately, behind the safe walls of their houses. The clean and tidy street where Ruth’s parents live explains, as much as, if not more than their words do, why they cannot tolerate or understand Ruth’s defection. The proposed ‘rescue’, then, is visually announced as a kidnap. The mission to save Ruth is quickly established in opposite terms to those her family use to justify their actions: being returned, Ruth will be imprisoned rather than freed, confined by the narrow-minded conventionalities, prejudices and fears which structure the family’s motives as well as the street. It is impossible to imagine Ruth’s liquid experience of bliss at the touch of the Guru occurring in such a solidly defined place. Indeed, such an experience, were it to happen, could only be labelled madness.

Afraid that Ruth is being manipulated by the cult she has joined, Ruth’s mother travels to India and lies to her daughter, telling her that her father is dying and desires to see her. It is the collapse of her mother’s health, however, that persuades Ruth to board the Qantas jet for Australia (the mother has an asthma attack brought on by her terror of the toilets, the smells, the people). As the film continues to unfold the normalizing logic of Ruth’s rescue back into the cold bosom of family, the question of who and what is mad is in fact turned back upon the rescuers – Ruth’s extended family. The veneer of normality through which they present and perceive their lives and rationalize their actions towards Ruth is not so much scratched away as intently scrutinized and revealed to be much more deeply crazed than the so-called brainwashing Ruth has received. The marriage of Ruth’s parents is sustained only through the husband’s deceit (he has a long-standing affair with his secretary and is accused by Ruth of hiding an illegitimate child). Ruth’s brother’s marriage is similarly lacking a real foundation in love: his wife is a dizzy, flirtatious woman who fantasizes about movie stars while having sex with her husband and quickly seduces the man hired by the family to deprogram Ruth. The superficiality and lovelessness of these relationships is threatened by the intensity of Ruth’s new devotion to Baba, her guru, and it is her definition of marriage to Baba as ‘spiritual’, whilst this may be gullible, which is most incomprehensible to her family members.

Shortly after her manipulated return to Australia, Ruth is transferred from the suburban family home, first to her aunt’s emu farm in Wee Waa and thence to an even more remote outback location, prosaically named The Halfway Hut (halfway to where? one wonders). These two locations, in contrast to Sans Souci, would seem to signify the real Australia. The history of representations of Australia is loaded with this equation of desert and heart or essence (1). It would also seem that the film has now moved our heroine from the superficiality of one environment to the depth and uniqueness of another, thus preparing the way for her ‘real’ spiritual awakening. Certainly it is here that the central drama of Ruth’s deprogramming is enacted. However there is more continuity between the locations than the Australian tradition of city (artifice) versus country (reality) would lead us to expect, due largely to the continuing comic presence of the Barron family. The sterility of the suburban environment gives way to the arid, thinly populated desert. And although there is undeniable beauty in this landscape, this beauty is associated more with the borderless air, sky and light than it is with the land: it is the luminous moon which creates the beauty of the silhouette of the mountain range near The Halfway Hut; the clear blue sky which accentuates the white stones and red dust of the desert. Ruth is transformed whilst trapped in this location, but her transformation is not effected by the inspiration of landscape. She does not become Australian; there is no homecoming in spiritual or emotional terms. In fact the reverse happens. The release which Ruth does obtain frees her to leave Australia again and return to India. The Halfway Hut, whose name measures a point reached in a journey, signifies a deadend for Ruth, a cul-de-sac, the point from which to turn back, rather than continue in the same direction. The history of white Australian exploration is, of course, littered with the corpses of adventurers who only ever reached metaphorical halfway-huts, perishing before reaching the fabled inland sea at the desert heart. Ruth is not seduced by this chimerical geography. She is a survivor.

It is the sexual battle of wills between herself and the cult exiter, P.J. Waters (played by Harvey Keitel), and not the Australian desert wilderness which isolates them together, which is responsible for Ruth’s deepening of clarity about herself, her motives and her quest, her need to “be kind” as the vanquished P.J. has poignantly requested. Having lost Ruth in a bizarre chase across the desert, P.J., who has begun to rave, hallucinates an ecstatic golden vision of a many-armed Indian Ruth Goddess, serenely floating above the horizon like a benign mirage. The Indian ‘spirit’ he has been employed to purge from Ruth has finally taken hold of his imagination too. The aim of the deprogramming exercise had been to break down Ruth’s acquired and foreign faith. It would then be up to her family and friends to rebuild her previous, which is to say real, native identity. A breakdown of sorts does occur, but there is no native self waiting beneath the pieces to be patched together again – only a confused girl whose strongest defenses are her youth and sexuality. Ruth’s mother believed that Ruth had been brainwashed and manipulated by the cult. This belief is grounded in a philosophy of opposites: the pure can be contaminated; the real obscured by the artificial. As her breakdown begins, Ruth sets fire to her sari outside The Halfway Hut, as if she too has reached a point where she accepts this philosophy. But the desired side of those pairs of opposites does not exist: she is neither purified nor realised by the cleansing ritual. What is restored to her is her questioning (which presumably lead her to the guru in the first place), now more cynical, hard-edged, distrustful and even cruel; her self-doubt and, at bottom, the remembrance of her emotional isolation and frigidity, the pain of perpetual lovelessness which the touch of the guru, the chanting and communality of the cult had appeased.

When P.J. hallucinates Ruth as a shining Indian Kali, glowing hugely above the iconic Australian heartland, the image frees her (in imaginative terms) from the futility of the imposed quest for her native identity. Hers is a postmodern soul with no respect for national borders (2). Ruth’s mother and aunt, accompanied in song by P.J’s lover, Carol (played by Pam Grier), pray for Ruth when they hear that she has set off on foot into the desert. At a loss for what to do, they recite the Lord’s Prayer. But what P.J. has assisted in liberating is neither a Christian nor an indigenous spirituality. What has survived the rigours of the three day deprogramming ordeal is the sexual spiritual energy of Ruth’s youth. It is this spirit which is searching for its place. In the environs of the Halfway Hut and its nearest entertainment venue, the local pub, this spirit wastes itself in the empty and egotistical pursuit of sexual conquest and novelty: or it finds itself disrespected and abused amongst the excesses of the hedonistic beer-swillers. In Australia, Ruth’s goddess self can only express itself in debased forms: she is a slut. P.J’s climactic image of her is, of course, an idealization and it belongs to P.J’s delirious imagination – but it is nonetheless an image which elevates Ruth in sympathy with her own transcendent yearnings. Ruth represents herself, finally, not through an image but in the words of a letter to P.J., now back in America, surprisingly married and the father of twins. She describes herself modestly as still searching, as working in an animal welfare shelter. She doesn’t see herself as a Goddess. Nevertheless, the brilliant vivacity of that vision, along with its refreshing novelty, humour and joyfulness, extends its meaningfulness beyond the literal terms of the narrative: there is a rightness and a generosity about this vision of Ruth: P.J. has seen her, perhaps as the sublime incarnation she aspires to. When Ruth writes that something did happen between them in the desert, I take it that this is what she means. Unlike the men at the outback pub who take advantage of her drunkenness by attempting to rape her, P.J., her quasi-gaoler, is entranced by the divinity of her sexuality, humbled, brought to his knees. He throws her the keys.

Australia features in only one other Campion feature film, and that is Sweetie. Whilst this debut film is mainly set in suburban Sydney (Sans Souci?), a small but significant part of the action involves a trip to ‘outback’ Australia (the location is unnamed) where the heroines’ mother, Flo (played by Dorothy Barry), has found a job as cook on a cattle station after leaving her husband. As in Holy Smoke this location is demythologised. Typically a masculine preserve, here it is dominated and domesticated by Flo’s womanly presence. The outdoor shots refuse the obligatory panorama, opting instead for the construction of tight framing which is consistent with the style of photography used in the suburban locations. In other words, the outback is denied its usual mythic dimensions, and is not privileged as a location, although Flo wishfully accords it that status: “out here I believe anything is possible,” she claims, sitting on the banks of an inland river. The camera denies that faith however, staying resolutely still instead of sweeping a wide glance over Flo’s “out here”. The place stays small. Holy Smoke allows the outback more beauty and a larger stage than does Sweetie – this is a film which revels in beauty – but place is still second to character and represented very much through human significations. In other words, the significations of place are, in Holy Smoke, rendered visible rather than allowed the transparency which mythologizing relies upon. This is not The Real Australia. Take for example the merino-as-coffee-table in the Mt Emu farmhouse; the intrusively obvious map of Australia on the wooden crate in the Halfway Hut; Ruth’s arrangement of white stones into the letters HELP, seen from the perspective of a circling airplane. Each of these humorous inclusions deliberately oversignifies ‘Australia’ – nation built on the back of the sheep, perilous desert where mere humans perish, proud symbol of young nationhood. This iconic Australia, most heavily signified in the abundance of iconography on Mt Emu Farm, which supports the Barron family’s claims to Ruth, does not have the mythic weight or authority to hold her for very long.

After her deprogramming, Ruth has learnt that the mysteries of India are also dressed and packaged. In a surprising and optimistic ending, Ruth returns to India, this time with her mother (the father having run off with his secret lover at last) who is now working with her. The essential part of home, nothing to do with soil or symbols or conventional family allegiances, has not been renounced, but has, in fact, been relocated with her, and love, gurus aside, seems possible after all. There is also a young boyfriend. Discovering where she belongs is less important than discovering how, and why.


  1. Even a short recent history of Australian cinema reveals a preponderance of films notable for their dramatic use of outback or desert locations to provide a sense of spiritual depth or purpose to their characters and to confer an ever-widening Australian-ness onto a new and unlikely breed of eccentric heroes. I’m thinking here of films such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994), Kiss or Kill (Bill Bennett, 1997), Doing Time for Patsy Kline (Chris Kennedy, 1996), Back of Beyond (Michael Robertson, 1995), Road to Nhill (Sue Brooks, 1995). The adventure of identity chasing is over and again visualised in Australian films against the backdrop of a wide brown land, often shot in awe-inspiring wide-angled panoramic style.
  2. The choice of an international, non-Australian star to play the role of Ruth obviously assists in producing this interpretation.

About The Author

Sue Gillett is the author of Views from Beyond the Mirror: The Films of Jane Campion (ATOM, 2004). She lectures in film, literature and women's studies at La Trobe University Bendigo.

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