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Somersault: beauty and turmoil

Dan Edwards

Sam Worthington, Abbie Cornish, Somersault Sam Worthington, Abbie Cornish, Somersault
The first thing that strikes you about a Cate Shortland film is just how much meaning is conveyed by purely visual means. In marked contrast to the dialogue-driven nature of most Australian dramas, where the image all too frequently serves to simply reify what is being said, Shortland’s work is characterised by striking compositions, textures and colours, moments of narrative drift and countless temporal ellipses that leave everything to the imagination. Although Somersault is Shortland’s first feature, it represents the fruition of a style developed across 4 short films made over nearly a decade.

Somersault, premiering at the 2004 Sydney Film Festival, focuses on a troubled teenage girl called Heidi (Abbie Cornish), caught in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Early in the film, an incident involving her mother’s boyfriend propels her out of the family home to Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains. Forced to make her own way, she strikes up a relationship with a local young man, Joe (Sam Worthington), and the body of the film traces their largely unsuccessful attempts to understand their budding emotions and desire for each other.

Superficially, Somersault is a study of alienation. Heidi escapes to Jindabyne upon losing the trust of her emotionally distant mother, but despite a naive openness that is sometimes painful to watch, she is unable to form lasting bonds with anyone in the town. A similar sense of isolation characterises all Shortland’s films. Joy (2000), her last short before Somersault and made while studying at AFTRS, portrays a day in the life of a young girl who inoculates herself against feeling by plunging into a haze of alcohol and frantic activity. The middle-aged central character of Pentuphouse (1998) risks her singing career and physical safety to be with her young lover, only to realise he will never be able give her the mutually fulfilling relationship she craves. Shortland’s most accomplished short, Flower Girl (1999, RT35, p13), focuses on a young Japanese tourist living in Bondi. He remains detached from his surrounds and unable to express his desire for his flatmate Hana, except through obsessively videotaping her.

Shortland’s characters are estranged from each other and the wider society in which they live, but what makes her cinema so resonant is their constant, desperate and often painful struggle to transcend their isolation and find ways of connecting in a world where traditional couplings and familial formations have ceased to be meaningful. The question at the heart of Shortland’s cinema is how to be in the world and with each other when established emotional and social structures no longer seem valid.

This longing for connection is played out in Somersault through the extraordinary lead performances of Abbie Cornish and Sam Worthington. In an interview with RealTime, Shortland explained that she engaged the actors in a 3-week rehearsal period prior to shooting in order to attain the restraint and subtlety evident in the finished film. Both actors embody the psychological fragility of people in their late teens and early twenties learning who they are and where they fit in the world. Cornish’s portrayal of Heidi conveys all the rawness of adolescent sexual and romantic awakening. Worthington exudes a tightly bound energy in the abrupt, awkward and angular movements with which he plays Joe, suggesting a repressed longing to embrace the world and escape the narrow confines of the town.

Joe’s reticence reflects an ambivalent relationship to language that runs throughout Shortland’s body of work, where words often block communication as much as they facilitate it. This thematic plays out explicitly in Joy, with phrases from standard parental lectures scrolling across the screen as the main character engages in a spree of shoplifting, fistfights and chance sexual encounters. These well worn adages highlight the way the language of cliché frequently functions as a substitute for real communication between parents and children. Similarly, in Somersault Heidi resorts to formulaic romantic phrases to express a very genuine need for support and validation, plaintively asking an incredulous Joe if he loves her after they have spent just a few nights together.

This ambivalence vis-à-vis language crucially informs Shortland’s emphasis on the visual. Over the course of making Flower Girl, Joy and Somersault, Shortland has developed a close working relationship with cinematographer Robert Humphreys (RT50, p23). Shortland explains that their expressive use of colour has been influenced by American photographers such as Nan Goldin and Todd Hido, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, particularly his work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. Like Doyle, Humphreys’ expressionistic style never descends into pure abstraction, instead relying on a heightened sense of colour drawn from the film’s environment. The characters in Somersault live in a world of freezer-cold blues, evoking the crisp, frost laden air of the Snowy Mountains winter setting. Strident splashes of red stand out against the wash of blues that constantly threaten to overwhelm them. The colour scheme reflects the mental state of characters living in an emotionally ossified world, caught between passion and fear, distance and warmth, fear and desire.

The meandering pace and recurring moments of narrative drift allow the audience to sink into the mood evoked by Somersault’s colour palette. The film is littered with poignant, incidental moments of everyday life that add nothing to the plot, but convey everything about the sensibility of the central character. For all her immaturity, Heidi is able to see the transient beauty of the world around her. Shortland draws us into this awareness, taking the time to picture Heidi drinking gracefully from a backlit water fountain, scattering a pile of dried crumbled leaves off a balcony, and watching a small boy jump on a trampoline.

“What I really love is beautiful things”, Shortland says, and perhaps ultimately this is the essence of her cinema. As a director and scriptwriter, she has the ability to find beauty in the prosaic poetry of everyday objects. Underpinning this sense of wonder is an enduring sense of hope born of our desire to be at one with each other and our surrounds, even if this desire is constantly thwarted.

Somersault, writer-director Cate Shortland, producer Anthony Anderson; performers Abbie Cornish, Sam Worthington; Hopscotch, 2004, various cinemas nationally from September 16

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 19

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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