By Hila Shachar
Cate Shortland’s Somersault (2004) is a film that inspires heated arguments between my friends and I. While many of them find it unbearably “precious”, “twee” and “pretentious”, I defend it against these claims, arguing that such responses only skim over its surface, rather than digging through to its substance. I adore this film because it shows me a side of Australian cinema and the Australian sensibility that I can actually relate to. I’ve never really been drawn to the macho or bogan appeal of many Australian comedies and action films. Sure, I found The Castle hilarious, and it’s fun to sit through Mad Max films late at night with a beer in hand. But they’re not exactly films that resonate with me. I often feel there’s a more reflective and less self-deprecatory side to Australian culture that is rarely explored, but which appears in a film like Somersault.
From one perspective, I can understand why Somersault is perceived as pretentious. Its strength lies not in plot, but in poetic visual expression. In fact, the plot can be quickly summarised: Heidi (Abbie Cornish), a teenage girl, runs away from home after a sexual encounter with her mother’s boyfriend. What ensues is a series of sexual encounters between Heidi and various men, through which she seeks validation and affection, the most meaningful one being with Joe (Sam Worthington), an equally troubled character.
Somersault is not a film of dialogue or action, but of beautiful imagery and gestures that speak for an internal consciousness. This interiority, coupled with an indulgent coming-of-age story and a cold bleak landscape that seems more European than Australian, align Somersault with European art-house cinema. But like I said, this is only a surface interpretation of the film, it doesn’t touch its core. Somersault requires an audience that is willing to play along with its silent logic of gestures and slow-moving images, and believe in the absolute sincerity of a teenage girl. Once I found myself willing to invest in this sincerity, the film yielded a whole array of connections that I find absolutely alluring and truthful.
There is one particularly memorable scene in Somersault which has pinned itself onto my memory. Heidi purchases a pair of bright red gloves, which she immediately puts on. Against an icy blue landscape and barren trees, Heidi is shown playing a childhood clapping game with an imaginary partner. The bright red gloves on her hands are boldly highlighted against the gloomy background colouring, and the viewer is compelled to follow the movements of her hands as she claps and sings along like a little girl. To me, this scene is like a small gestural summary of the major themes of the film: the movement from childhood to adulthood, fragmentation and connection, desire and alienation, love and loss, innocence and experience.
Heidi’s hands often guide us through these themes. Here, they present Heidi as a ‘Red Riding Hood’ type of figure: lost in a wild landscape, straying off the familiar path of childhood, seeking entrance into adulthood, and finding many dangers along the way. Innocence and experience collide through her red gloves, as they do throughout the film. When we later view her hands, gently seeking those of her lover’s in a gesture of wordless intimacy, it becomes clear that this film does not explain itself through what is said, but rather through what is felt and touched.
This is what I find so moving about Somersault. Not simply visually beautiful, it is also a film that evokes wordless narratives through the movement of hands. Gail Jones once called Jane Campion’s The Piano a film “about touch, what the fingers can do, what sounds they can make, what intimacies and violence they might know of or suffer” (Gail Jones, The Piano, Sydney: Currency Press, 2007, p. 40). Shortland’s Somersault is predicated on precisely such a sensory experience. Against explicitly painful and fragmentary stories of individual alienation, Shortland highlights people’s hands and fingers as signs of intimacy, hope, connection and desire. That this desire is complex, contradictory and plural, is also one of the most fascinating aspects of the film. Beneath Somersault’s coolly beautiful exterior lie Heidi’s seeking fingers encased in an intense red that signals the throbbing heart of the film.
If my response to the film seems somewhat intellectualised, I’d like to point out that it stems from feelings of empathy. Heidi is an Australian female character that I can actually empathise with on an emotional level. She experiences her world through an almost solipsistic interiority and sense of unstable contradictions. Her gestures point to a whole world of private intimacy that is usually dismissed in films as overtly “feminine” (and hence a bit “twee”). Like Campion’s mute heroine in The Piano, Ada, Heidi is part of an unspoken language of marginalised femininity. What Shortland actually reveals through Heidi’s hands is a feminine cinematic voice that does not “speak” in the conventional sense, but points to different ways of knowing and being.
It’s hard for me to listen to the accusations levelled against Somersault as “precious” and “pretentious” precisely because dismissing the film means also dismissing the alternative perspective it offers into an Australian cinematic sensibility built on interiority. This interiority is rarely valued, and one of the reasons why is because it’s aligned with feminine perspectives. But in a world full of clichés about women, and clichés about what Australian culture represents, Somersault is like a bright red beacon of hope.
About Hila Shachar: Hila Shachar is a freelance writer, researcher and Honorary Research Fellow within the Department of English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. She regularly contributes to The Australian Ballet Blog, Behind Ballet, and can also be found on her own blog, le projet d’amour. Her critical and fictional work has appeared in various print and online publications, and she has published several articles on film, feminism and nineteenth-century literature in various book collections. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). This book is based on her doctoral thesis, which explores the screen adaptation and cultural legacy of classic literature from the 1930s to the present age.
Read Previous ‘Why I Adore’ Posts:
Paul Anthony Nelson (the ‘Why I Adore’ godfather and founder) introduces the concept, and rhapsodises about Mad Max. AFI Membership Administrator Lia McCrae-Moore revisits the lyrical beauty of One Night the Moon and Clem Bastow reminisces about a childhood spent watching the television show Round the Twist. Or you can read Anthony Morris flirting with disaster in his adoration of Romper Stomper, Annie Stevens going bridal with Muriel’s Wedding, or Popzilla bowing down before the altar of literary screen adaptations. Most recently, Lia McCrae-Moore showers affection on SBS’s high-octane police thriller, East West 101, Rochelle Simienowicz delves deeply into the ground-breaking television series, Love My Way, and Simon Elschlepp discovers a fondness for stylish and audacious futuristic noir, Dark City. Most recently, Thomas Caldwell rhapsodises about Richard Lowenstein’s anarchic and playful 1986 film Dogs in Space and John Bailey remembers a strange fascination with Big Brother Up Late.
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