ENLIGHTENMENT COMES to Ruth with the color and intensity of an all-night, ecstasy-fueled rave. Played by Kate Winslet, she’s a naﶥ young Aussie doing the hippie backpack circuit through India who joins a cult of sari-wearing Westerners. But who can blame them? As rendered by Jane Campion (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady), Ruth’s orgasmic conversion comes with the touch of the guru’s hand to her forehead, from which the light of her third eye emanates in brilliant, trippy, oversaturated hues. Beats anything by Moby, that’s for sure.
directed by Jane Campion
with Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet
opens February 11 at Harvard Exit
Her horrified white trash family wants her deprogrammed, pronto. Made up of types, only her gay brother and beloved mother get any dignity from Campion—which indicates where the movie is headed. They enlist an American “exit counselor,” who arrives to the best use of a Neil Diamond song since Pulp Fiction. Harvey Keitel’s cocky, virile P.J. is the embodiment of male self-assurance, and you know that Campion’s setting him up for a fall. And a long one, because as soon as Ruth is lured back home, then isolated at a remote outback sheep station, she’s left alone to battle P.J. for her soul.
“You’re never going to break me,” Ruth taunts him. After Campion’s swift, sure introduction, you look forward to their close-quartered metaphysical combat. But their dialogue is also implicitly about control and seduction, which gets down to the real power issues for Campion. Ruth’s already got P.J.’s number sexually, recognizing his interest in her “Barbie doll” sister-in-law Yvonne (wonderfully played by Sophie Lee).
A far better, smaller movie could’ve been made about Ruth’s family, but Campion instead inflates Ruth and P.J.’s sparring into a wildly silly, out-of-control spectacle like Last Tango in Paris. P.J. tries to control Ruth, Ruth tries to degrade P.J., and the third-act scenes of a dazed Keitel staggering through the desert show how Campion shares in her character’s sadistic pleasure. “Man hater,” P.J. snarls at Ruth, who’s ultimately no more guilty of misandry than Campion.
When the contest’s over, the winner prevails with love. Lacking an ending, Campion simply drives her combatants into a glorious, transcendent sunset, then provides a few paltry postscripts. Yet they bear out Yvonne’s observation—the only convincing tenet in the film—that “All we really have is each other.”