That’s the Spirit


I don’t know if anyone has ever named God as a divorce-case third party, but it’s a possibility the tormented male protagonists of Jane Campion’s rambunctious Holy Smoke! and Neil Jordan’s more sober The End of the Affair could well appreciate. Blame it on the power of love or millennial consciousness: Both films humble their smug heroes with divine retribution for attempting to possess women consecrated to the supreme Alpha Male.

Holy Smoke!—which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival and opens Friday for a one-week qualifier—is the more affirmative, complex and entertaining of the two movies. Campion’s latest, directed from an original screenplay cowritten with her sister Anna, is lusty and tumultuous—as willful as its heroine. Filled with flashy sight gags, overwrought performances and madly overlapping dialogue, Holy Smoke! alternates the crass hyperbole endemic to Australian film comedy with a scarcely less confrontational affair between the young acolyte of a Hindu cult and the middle-aged American “cult exiter” her parents hire to deprogram her.

Traveling through India and ripe for the picking, Ruth (Kate Winslet) finds God in the person of the guru Baba—her illuminating vision illustrated in appropriately garish pink and orange. After a distraught friend returns to Sydney to report this transfiguration (“some sort of freaky hypnotism happened”), Ruth’s mother is dispatched to Delhi, where she proves humorously ill-equipped to deal with India’s crowds, toilets and undeniable thereness. Mother’s fortuitous collapse precludes Ruth’s participation in a group wedding to Baba, and under wildly false pretenses, daughter is transported back to the bosom of a grotesquely caricatured family.

A scene in which Ruth is literally corralled by her male relatives presages the appearance of legendary cult-buster PJ Waters (Harvey Keitel), who materializes out of the desert in the all-black outfit of a western gunfighter. Campion heralds this apparition with a majestic chorus of ” ‘I Am,’ I Said.” (One of Holy Smoke!‘s pleasures is its sense of being an operetta scored to the unselfconscious rhinestone excess of Neil Diamond; Ruth prefers to sing along with Alanis Morissette.) Antagonists in place, Holy Smoke! proceeds as a three-day psychic showdown between two utterly committed, fearless performers—with Winslet in particular placing her lush physicality in the service of her character’s personal liberation struggle.

Engaging Ruth in a spurious dialogue, pompous PJ is initially an advocate of reason, but by the end of the second day, his flighty subject has intuited his Achilles’ heel and begun to fight back on less rational terrain. When she appears to PJ naked and asking for love, he can’t resist her (later lamely explaining, “I was trying to be comforting”). Mischievously deconstructing the May-September sexual relationship between an old Method actor and a brazen ingenue, most elaborately romanticized in Last Tango in Paris, the Campion sisters are themselves pretty programmatic.

Holy Smoke! justifies its exclamatory title as a sort of emotional slapstick in which characters react to stimulation as directly as they would to a kick in the pants. A scene of family celebration in some sort of outlandish outback honky-tonk with the now cured Ruth chugging beer and dancing with her sister-in-law sets up the jealous PJ for an epic arguing, teasing, taunting, crawling, confusing one-on-one, the battle for control interrupted, but only temporarily, by the timely arrival of PJ’s irate girlfriend (Pam Grier).

As the prophet once said, when your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes. By the time the cowboy deprogrammer has been himself sufficiently deprogrammed to trade his Hopalong Cassidy duds for a flaming red dress, he’s hopelessly in love. In the movie’s most pathetic, poignant moment, smitten PJ offers up a prayer to the very deity he set himself against. “We’ll see Baba. He could help us.”

Baba is no help in The End of the Affair, Neil Jordan’s technically accomplished adaptation of the time-shifting 1951 novel that put author Graham Greene on the cover of Time with the tantalizing headline “Adultery can lead to sainthood.”

The End of the Affair is not exactly Bressonian, but it does open with its writer-hero, Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes), typing his “diary of hate.” Brooding over his convoluted extramarital wartime affair with the mysterious Sarah (Julianne Moore), Bendrix is already on his road to Damascus. In a flashback to a point some years after Sarah inexplicably left him, Bendrix meets her clueless husband Henry (Stephen Rea) to discover that, although unaware of the earlier affair, Henry now believes that Sarah is deceiving him with someone else. Madly jealous Bendrix hires his own detective (played with comic cockney tact by Ian Hart), and the action hopscotches through time to illuminate their relationship and his investigation.

Unlike the 1955 End of the Affair, which straightened out Greene’s chronology (and starred Hollywood’s adulteress of choice, Deborah Kerr), Jordan’s remake is extraordinarily fluid in handling the narrative’s temporal flights. But the erotic chemistry is tepid, despite Moore’s characteristically bold performance. She gets the big lines and bravely held-back tears—although Jordan cancels out her restraint by contriving to set nearly every big scene in a seemingly tropical monsoon—while Fiennes is glumly downcast. No stranger to supernaturalism, Jordan is similarly lachrymose when he might have been sardonic. For all its obvious psychoanalytic implications, his wacky romantic triangle lost me long before it crawled to its spiritualist conclusion. (About halfway through I began to imagine it as it might have been directed by Douglas Sirk as a vehicle for Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.)

The End of the Affair‘s protracted windup affords ample opportunity to ponder its unsubtle message. Greene’s parable not only insists that faith is belief in the invisible but strenuously suggests that monotheism exists to police love—a notion common to cultural revolutionaries as otherwise disparate as Saint Paul and Wilhelm Reich, neither of whom clothed it in such sanctimonious kitsch.

FILMFEST, MOMA’s survey of current post-Soviet films, opens with a bang—namely Alexei Gherman’s Khrustaliov, My Car! (screened once during the 1998 NYFF). Like Gherman’s previous features, Khrustaliov is set on a historical cusp—unfolding over three days during the winter of 1953, when, his condition as yet unknown to the Soviet people, their Great Stalin lay dying. The Terror of 1937 seems about to repeat itself, and Gherman initially plays it as farce, tracking his protagonist, General Yuri Glinsky, through the snow-shrouded hysteria as this military surgeon reels from one enigmatic scene to the next, hemorrhaging status all the while. Glinsky tries to escape Moscow incognito (even as his part-Jewish family is forcibly relocated to a dingy communal apartment) but falls into the trap he sought to avoid. Attacked for his boots by a gang of kids, he is unceremoniously transported toward a prison camp—albeit with a surprise detour.

Khrustaliov is populated by a cast of grimacing performers and characterized by extravagantly long takes that all but preclude reverse angle or reaction shots. The narrative is not difficult to follow, but the succession of events is dizzying. Atmosphere is all. Gherman’s extraordinarily crisp black-and-white images are married to a soundtrack as clamorous as his mise-en-scène is cluttered. The hallucinated environment supersedes all but the most grossly physical events; the sequence in which Glinsky is raped by a gang of criminal thugs in the back of a closed truck en route to the gulag is worthy of Salo.

Gherman’s Walpurgisnacht is thick with allusions, literary as well as political. Seven years in the making, this alarming phantasmagoria is one of the great films of the decade—a brilliantly directed, unrelentingly grotesque, savagely bleak comedy.

Holy Smoke! A Miramax release. Directed by Jane Campion. At the Sony Lincoln Square Dec 3-10. The End of the Affair A Columbia Pictures release. Directed by Neil Jordan. Opens Dec 3. Khrustaliov, My Car! Directed by Alexei Gherman. At the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53 St, NYC, 212-708-9400. Dec 3 and 6.