Posts Tagged ‘Harvey Keitel’


Under the credits, a man and a woman wander through a museum in Vienna, comporting themselves like lovers. We get close-up views of luscious romantic Klimt paintings and then – a Schiele canvas, in which a man desperately holds onto a woman who looks very much like she wants to get away.

He is American research psychologist Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) and she’s an American too, Milena Flaherty (Theresa Russell), who comes and goes across Austria’s border and has a husband over there in Czechoslovakia. Russell is beyond superb. While directing the movie, Nicholas Roeg fell in love with her, and you can sorta tell from the way the whole thing is a showcase to display her. She deserves it. (They got married, had a couple of kids, and divorced.) Her eyes seem to change color in different scenes – there’s one in particular where they are the palest icy blue, yet seem a minute later to be dark.

The first question you have to ask about Milena is, what does she live on? When she moves, she only takes along one small bag. Yet she has fabulous clothes and an apartment full of stuff. Is she a trust fund baby, or does she hold onto the Czech husband because he’s rich, or what? There’s no indication of her ever doing any kind of work. She can get away with being drunk, having irresponsible, impulsive adventures, and so forth. Her source of income isn’t relevant to the plot, but geez.

Along with his research and teaching, Alex Linden does occasional jobs for the US intelligence services. For instance, a spook hands him two files, and tells him to find out if either of the subjects “sniffs cocaine or plays with little girls or boys.” Linden, who should know better, is a poor security risk. He brings files home. He brings home a file on Milena’s husband, which includes her photo and biographical information.

We learn the story of Milena and Linden in flashbacks. In fact there’s probably more cutting back and forth in time than in any movie ever made. It’s pretty disorienting. So go ahead and watch it twice.

In the present, an ambulance takes the overdosed Milena to the hospital. Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel) extracts the story from Linden. Milena had called him up and said “I’ll be dead in a minute, I wanted to say goodbye” and of course he went right over. It was no big deal, she’d overdosed before. Linden paints her as a wild woman who denies herself nothing, a woman to whom something dreadful was bound to happen sooner or later.

But the inspector sees a few discrepancies. Linden says he talked on the phone with Milena long after she would have already been comatose. And his car radio is tuned to a station that doesn’t start broadcasting until midnight. And so on. In other words, Netusil suspects exactly what happened. Far from rushing to Milena’s side and summoning help immediately, Linden waited to make sure she would die, and “ravished” her in the meantime.

We see how it went down. When Linden first arrived, Milena was still semi-coherent. Collapsed on the floor, with almost no motor skills left, she managed to get the telephone. Linden pulled the jack from the wall and replaced it later, after it was too late. Looking around the apartment, Netusil somehow intuits all of this. He even seems to have psychic visions that tell him what happened.

Linden puts Milena on her bed, saying “We don’t need anybody else. Just you and me.” While waiting for her to die, “It’s better this way, believe me, there was no other way.” After pacing around for a while, he cuts her clothes off and rapes her inert body, saying “I love you.”

At the beginning of their affair, Milena had pursued Alex, who hung back at first. We see them in happier times. He reads to her from the poetry of William Blake, the verse

What is it men in women do require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire.
What is it women do in men require?
The lineaments of Gratified Desire. *

A scene where Milena’s in bed with her husband implies that she isn’t getting sexual satisfaction from him, although that’s not the only reason she goes out in search of adventure. He’s 30 years older, for one thing. Once when Milena goes missing for a week, Linden calls her husband, who is bored, dismissive, and contemptuous of this weak American, who can’t muster the necessary intestinal fortitude to deal with such a woman. The husband tells Linden that a man has to love Milena even more than his own dignity. And, as Linden learns, more than he loves being told the truth. She persists in lying about her marital status, and Linden crosses over to Czechoslovakia and bothers some hostile bureaucrats to try and find out if she’s divorced or what.

Linden wants Milena to move in with him, he wants her to return to the States with him and marry him. We sit in on one of his lectures, where he speaks to the students about how we are all spies. He knows all about this, because he spies on Milena a lot, and suffers terribly from jealousy, while she relates to a lot of different men.

But that’s not all. She does heedless things, like burn his car’s upholstery with a cigarette. She can be an embarrassing drunk. In one horrendous scene she’s invited him over. Her place cleaned up as if by the world’s most dedicated housewife, and she’s wearing some kind of mock-sexy outfit and enough makeup to turn her from a flashy woman into a grotesque clown. She’s changed herself into what he seems to want her to be. He leaves, and from the balcony she hurls bottles into the street, yelling at him so the whole neighborhood is disturbed.

Soon their discourse is reduced to “What?” and “Why?” as brilliantly encapsulated in one scene. He wants to possess Milena, who can’t be possessed. “You don’t own me. I don’t own you,” she says. She enumerates some of her priorities – to get up when she wants to get up, and eat when she wants to eat, and not to be with people she doesn’t like. (These are core values I recognize, and I don’t think a person who holds them is necessarily a monster of selfishness.) They have a terrible argument on the stairs and she declares, “I just want to be allowed to give where I can – what I can – to who I can.” What she most likes to give, and there’s nothing wrong with this, either, are the Lineaments of Gratified Desire.

There’s a lot of cross-cutting to emphasize the twinship of sex and death. From Milena’s orgasm to her convulsions on the emergency room operating table. From the couple having sex, to the doctor spreading her legs and going in with a speculum to look for rape evidence. From Milena’s head hanging over the edge of the bed during sex, to the doctors doing the tracheotomy.

With unflagging persistence, the inspector interrogates Linden. He’s fully tuned in to the atmosphere of claustrophobic obsession and sexual pessimism reminiscent of certain Leonard Cohen lyrics. The intuitive genius detective is the role Harvey Keitel was born for, and this isn’t the first time he’s filled it, or the last. Anyway, he’s just about gotten Linden to confess when Milena’s husband appears at the door. More bad timing. She’s alive, and will recover.

I like how the art references in the film hang together. For instance, we see Milena reading The Sheltering Sky, and later we see her with Linden on vacation in Morocco, which apparently was their last happy time. This is where he made the mistake of talking about marriage, which left her completely unimpressed. As he waits for her to die, he plays a record of Moroccan music instantly recognizable as the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Which is ironic, because this is supposed to be healing music. Maybe that’s why Milena survives the drug-induced coma. You’d think the professor would be smart enough not to play the wrong kind of music to die by.

So Linden gets away with attempted murder, and loses Milena of course. There’s a flash-forward to a future scene, when they’re both back in their own country. She gets out of a cab, he gets into a cab. He had asked her to return to the States with him, as his wife. Instead, their only meeting is accidental and brief, and she looks at him with hatred.

*These lines, incidentally also figure in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, where the characters initials (like the author’s) are LGD (for Lineaments of Gratified Desire, of course.)

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While appreciating every aspect of film-making, when it comes to deciding what to watch, I’m just about totally actor-oriented. Definition of a favorite: I’ll go out of my way to get hold of movies they’re in; and watch just about anything, if they’re in it.

Steve Buscemi
Richard Dreyfuss
Ralph Fiennes
Andy Garcia
Bob Hoskins
Harvey Keitel
Michael Pitt
Mickey Rourke
James Spader
James Woods

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Why I wanted to see Holy Smoke: Harvey Keitel. If he’s in it, I’ll watch it. Also, the Cheech and Chong-like title. But it’s not about dope. It’s about various kinds of obsession, and although this is pretty much left unverbalized, it’s about who gets to make decrees about what obsessions are acceptable.

Ruth (Kate Winslet), a young Australian, visits India, and decides to stay. She joins an ashram. The family hires “exit counselor” PJ Waters (Keitel), who has deprogrammed nearly 200 former cult members and is considered the best in the business. He advises them to tell Ruth that her father is at death’s door. They are to trick her into coming back to what they still consider as her home, regardless of how she feels about it. If you’re the thinking type, you’ve already started thinking by now. Can any honest enterprise be founded on a lie?

When PJ Waters arrives, his swaggering demeanor is immediately appreciated by Yvonne (Sophie Lee), who spends most of her waking hours wearing only panties and a bra. (It’s very hot in certain parts of Australia.) At the first opportunity, she says Howdy with a blowjob.

Ruth, still in her sari, is taken by PJ Waters to a remote cabin where they are to be sequestered for three days. He works on her head. She spells out HELP with rocks on the ground, which is seen by pilot who calls up her family to report it. They have to make an excuse.

Supposedly these would be days of isolation, but they go back to the family homestead so everybody can watch a video about cults. It’s heavy on the Charlie Manson, and here’s where that pesky thinking kicks in again. You ask yourself, “Wait a minute, isn’t there a difference between a Manson, and a Maharishi or a Bhagwan?” And there is. Granted, many allegedly spiritual groups turn out to be nothing more than gangs in funny outfits, and I’m thinking specifically of some of those Hare Krishna thugs. But if you’re going to grant the basic premise that a lot of people want to join up with religions (and we must accept it, since it’s undeniable), then no religion should be judged on the basis of what its worst adherents do. If a whole religion is to be discredited because of its most notorious miscreants, well then, there goes the entire Catholic church.

Next, it’s the middle of the night, back at the cabin. PJ Waters wakes up to find that Ruth has set one of the outbuildings or something on fire. He goes in the yard to size up the situation, and Ruth approaches, out of the flickering darkness, not wearing a stitch. I just can’t spoil this for you, but I will say it is the most bizarre seduction scene.

So they wind up in bed, but PJ Waters gets more from the experience than Ruth does. Uh-oh. In the morning, a raucous crew of friends arrive, saying never mind the three days of isolation, something important needs to be celebrated. So they go to a club, and this is confusing, because the scene is like Sodom and Gomorrah. Who parties like this in the morning? PJ Waters gets all parental, and tells Ruth “I don’t think you should be drinking.” What a hypocrite. Isn’t this what he supposedly is aiming for, to get her out of her spirituality and back into the world? So, what’s his freakin problem? To taunt him, Ruth gets out on the dance floor and necks with a woman, and not a very attractive one, at that. PJ Waters casts the evilest of evil eyes in their direction, but Ruth doesn’t care.

“Two can play at that game,” he figures, and gets Yvonne to dance with him. He’s supposed to be this superior, psychologically hip guy, and he doesn’t know that you can’t make somebody jealous who doesn’t give a shit about you. Meanwhile, Ruth disappears and he finds her being extensively manhandled at the hands of three men. He does the tough guy thing and gets rid of them.

Back in the cabin, the head-trips multiply exponentially, because now Ruth is in full stride. She becomes seductive again, and PJ Waters says, “You’re playing with me, Ruth” Hah! His whole life is playing with people. Never does it occur to him that her scorn might not be age-based. He’s oblivious to the possibility that she could hate him because he’s kidnapped her and is trying to brainwash her. He wants to talk about the sex they had last night. “How was it for you?” he asks. “A bit revolting,” she says. (The first rule in this kind of situation is, if you have to ask, it wasn’t good.) PJ Waters is defensive and full of wounded vanity. “I was young once too, and handsome. You’d have been impressed.” She flings back, “I wasn’t born!” Then they go at it again.

Not long afterward, his woman arrives. He had sent for her, as his best, trained assistant, but that was before he went to bed with the client. She is mightily pissed off. And that’s all I’m going to tell. The important thing to know is, it gets very bizarre. I haven’t seen anything this weird in a long time. It is way at the top of the unusualness chart.

Little things to like: “Baby, It’s You” and an Annie Lennox song. We don’t hear enough Annie Lennox on soundtracks.

If you see Holy Smoke with somebody else, and sit around talking about it afterward, here are a couple more things that could come up. For a lot of people, the most difficult place to be spiritual is in the childhood home, or indeed anywhere with the family. The biological family doesn’t own a person, any more than the guru does. There’s an argument to be made that a person’s spirituality is nobody else’s business, and that electing to interfere with it is the real crime.

Here’s something else to consider. It’s illegal for a religious leader to brainwash people into committing suicide for a spiritual reason. But the government is allowed to brainwash people into thinking it’s glorious to commit suicide by joining the military and dying for your country. Not only is it okay for the government to brainwash people into thinking it’s good to sacrifice their own lives, it’s okay for the government to brainwash people into thinking it’s okay to kill others. And the difference between the government and Charlie Manson is… remind me?


Anna Campion, writer
Jane Campion, writer and director

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