Why I Adore: Somersault

By Hila Shachar

Abbie Cornish in 'Somersault'.

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.

Sam Worthington & Abbie Cornish in 'Somersault'.

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.

Abbie Cornish in SomersaultThere 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.

Hands, fingers, the sense of touch. A recurring motif in 'Somersault'.

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.

Contribute: We’re currently looking for more ’Why I Adore’ articles devoted to Australian film and television. Send a one paragraph summary to editor[at] afi.org.au and we’ll get back to you with more details.

5 thoughts on “Why I Adore: Somersault

  1. “it becomes clear that this film does not explain itself through what is said, but rather through what is felt and touched.”

    Except it does so in a very blatant and obvious way – usually in tight and lingering close-up – devoid of the subtlety of the best of European cinema you liken Somersault to. Similarly, the use of colour you point to is extremely overt, not even remotely nuanced. In drawing too much attention to itself, it subverts its own project. It’s basically a crap version of what someone like Phillipe Grandrieux does, though I doubt Shortland was referencing him

    Also, the critical conceit at the film’s genesis – that we “believe in the absolute sincerity of a teenage girl” is a very big ask. There is really no explanation for Heidi’s behaviour with her mum’s boyfriend (not that one is needed) but I never felt she was a representative, typical or normal teenage girl at all, nor that the situation was normal, typical or one likely to be encountered (much less the actions chosen in that moment) commonly in life. That this trigger event happens SO close to the film’s opening, before we have any chance to develop any empathy or understanding for Heidi at all, to have any clue as to why she might have done what she’s done (be it her relationship with her mother, aspects of her own character, whatever) she acts in a jarring way. It’s an error of pacing/direction in my opinion, one that undermines the film’s whole project.

    Sure, we find out that it doesn’t matter *why* Heidi’s done what she’s done; as you say, the film is an exploration of her interiority, and we find out soon enough just how confused she is, about a lot of things. But this directorial misstep at the outset almost sets a jarring wobble of its own off, like a coin dropped on a table, rattling away faster and faster until the stillness of its stop. Prevented me from ever truly falling into Heidi’s world.

  2. Well, I thoroughly disagree, but like I said, many people disagree with me. Including my friends.

    I don’t think the tight close-ups were devoid of subtlety, but rather, reinforced some of the suffocating intimacy associated with Heidi. You either like this mode of cinema, or you don’t. And I personally thought it stood up to some of the best European cinema. Have you ever seen any of Kieslowski’s films in which he uses such extreme close-ups in similar ways? He also uses colour (including red) in much the same obvious manner, which draws explicit attention to itself. That doesn’t make his films any less complex than other European films, and I argue the same for Somersault. It seems that when these themes and techniques are used by Australian directors, they’re somehow ‘bad’ imitations of European cinema. And these kinds of judgements just annoy me and seem pretentious themselves.

    And sorry, but Heidi seemed totally believable to me, because I remember feeling the same ambivalent feelings she does. Not all teenage girls behave the same, so I don’t really understand what you mean by a ‘normal’ teenage girl. I thought the pace and direction was more ‘realistic’ than a lot of other films.

    Perhaps some people appreciate the whole ‘jarring’ quality of the film. I did, and that’s why I fell into Heidi’s world. I understand that if you can’t empathise with a character like Heidi, it makes it difficult to enjoy Somersault. But it doesn’t make the film ‘crap’.

  3. Okay, the language I used *was* a little lazy re: Somersault being ‘crap’. Apologies. I guess I meant those gestural and colour flourishes seemed, to me, derivative rather than an innovation, even if exceptional in an Australian screen context. Also, I forgot to add that I found The Decoder Ring soundtrack, while great as a standalone album, felt at times intrusive/manipulative as a film score, despite its composition for that purpose.

    I take your point about Kieslowski. Maybe the technique works better with some stories than others? Certainly from where I sit. And I seem to recall Shortland name-checking American photographer Todd Hido as her main visual reference point for Somersault, not anyone Europeans in particular. But I could be wrong.

    Have definitely noticed a far greater tendency for my women friends who’ve seen this film to soften Heidi’s behaviour with nouns like ‘confusion’ ‘anxiety’ ‘ambivalent feelings’ etc, when I find it really implausible to think a 16 year old girl – nearly ANY 16 year old girl, regardless of all the glorious complexity and diversity you assert for them (that it seems you’ve somehow – unwittingly? – managed to imply boys don’t possess or wouldn’t undertsand???) would not implicitly know it’s wrong to snog their mum’s boyfriend… fairly universal behavioural taboo being violated there.

    Of course, without transgression/conflict there is no story, I get that, just found the genesis too sudden, to a propos of nothing.

    Congrats on being able to make the leap to sympathy/empathy for Heidi, but I know I’m not alone in thinking it was a directorial risk that didn’t come off for many viewers. I’m glad you got more out of it.

    FWIW, I really liked this piece, and I definitely agree we often get much more from discussing a film with someone who has a very different opinion about it than our own. Long may it be the case.

  4. Agreed, we don’t have to like the same films. But I do take offence to this statement you’ve made:

    “I find it really implausible to think a 16 year old girl – nearly ANY 16 year old girl, regardless of all the glorious complexity and diversity you assert for them (that it seems you’ve somehow – unwittingly? – managed to imply boys don’t possess or wouldn’t undertsand???) would not implicitly know it’s wrong to snog their mum’s boyfriend… fairly universal behavioural taboo being violated there.”

    There are a mass of assumptions being made here about what I state and/or imply. Stating that I empathise with Heidi, or that all teenage girls aren’t the same, doesn’t imply that boys are not, likewise, complex and different as human beings. I was simply responding to your generalisation about ‘normal’ teenage girls – I personally hate those kinds of labels, because they imply that there’s some agreed-upon benchmark for what constitutes ‘normal’. I just don’t believe in ‘universals’, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    And of course Heidi knows what she did was wrong, but many people (both men and women) do ‘wrong’ things for many reasons (low self-esteem being one of them). And lots of people have crossed similar taboos in ‘real life’, so it doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me. In fact, it seems like a pretty accurate representation of how a lot of people act-out through sex and taboo behaviour when they’re young and seeking attention/validation.

  5. Pingback: ‘Every second is history, every moment is history.’ Cate Shortland on LORE | AFI blog

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