Somersault (2003) directed by Cate Shortland is a complex, layered and richly textured cinematic experience. Nominated for fifteen Australian Film Institute awards, winning thirteen of which included best film, best direction and best original screenplay, the film explores female sexuality and coming of age. Set in the ski fields of Jindabyne, New South Wales, Shortlands examines how different experiences and people can mold a young adult. She achieves this through her two leads, Heidi (Abbie Cornish) and Joe (Sam Worthington).
The film follows the life of a confused sixteen-year-old girl, Heidi who leaves her mother in Canberra due to a sexual misconduct, traveling to Jindabyne where she explores her own sexuality. She begins to build a new life and falls for a local boy, Joe. She desperately craves affection but unfortunately cannot differentiate between love and sex. This essay will analyse how the film develops female sexuality and coming of age, through the use of narrative, motif, and settings. A films narrative is a chain of events that continue the story forward.
It occurs through cause and affect, time and space. It is also an audience’s interpretation, allowing different narratives to exist. Shortland explores the narrative with great depth, utilizing her own talents as a director and her actors to skillfully connect the audience to the narrative. The development of female sexuality is presented through the narrative in the first fifteen minutes. Heidi a sexually confused, lonely girl is caught seducing her mother’s boyfriend. This sequence firstly introduces and prepares the audience for sexual discourse throughout the ilm, it also begins the development process of female sexuality, setting the audience up for a coming of age story and finally kick starts the film. Shortland makes events, not usually seen in cinema extremely realistic, intensifying the overall narrative of the film. It is clear throughout the narrative that Heidi is exploring her sexuality. “We are not left long in Somersault before being reminded that this is a film largely concerned with sex, and Heidi’s experience of it. Offering a narrative engagement with the subject of sexuality and Heidi’s femininity” (Hancock, 2013).
This is evident throughout many scenes, when Heidi uses sex to find a place to stay, when she tries to seduce a business owner for potential work and finally par tacking in a threesome to get back at Joe for hurting her feelings. It is evident from these scenes that Shortland slowly develops female sexuality throughout her narrative. The coming of age narrative although interconnected with the development of female sexuality is individually exploited numerous times. Heidi’s childish nature when she is alone connects the audience to her character.
Holden, from New York Times writes ‘Behind closed doors, Heidi reveals her childlike side, conducting imaginary romantic dialogues with Joe in the mirror and poring over her scrapbook. ’ This emphasizes to the audience that Heidi is stuck in a kidult hood stage, reinforcing to the audience that Heidi wishes to be loved. Thus creating an intermit connection between Heidi and the audience. “This film is inhabited by scared people, who all want to be loved; I wanted the viewer to be intimate with them” (Shortland, 2004).
Through these events within the narrative, including the final scene when Heidi connects with her mother, it is clear that Heidi has learnt many lessons throughout the film in conjunction with female sexuality; the difference between love and sexual intercourse. Shortland also uses the scene where Heidi plays a hand game and sings a song to convey the child like characteristics of the character. This blatantly forces the audience to acknowledge Heidi’s childish nature, representing the coming of age within the narrative.
Furthermore Shortland stays clear of basic dialogue to guide the narrative, using gestures and the movement of the actors to suggest female sexuality and a coming of age. “It’s not simply visually beautiful, it is also a film that evokes wordless narratives through the movement of hands” (Shachar, 2011). Shortland uses hands and gestures to develop sexuality and coming of age to progress the narrative forward. “Somersault is not a film of dialogue or action, but of beautiful imagery and gestures that speak for an internal consciousness” (Shachar, 2011). There are many close ups of Heidi’s hands touching another actor.
This use of touch invites the audience on a journey of heightened sexuality. “In formal language the use of close-ups, or indeed extreme close-ups, have a resonant currency in creating a sense of intimacy, or involvement, from a viewer’s perspective” (Hancock, 2013). An example of this is when Heidi asks Joe how he show’s someone that he loves them. Throughout this sequence both Joe and Heidi touch each other. This interaction between the two characters acknowledges Heidi’s sexuality, as it is clear the touching arouses her. Therefore advancing the characters towards love, resulting in sex.
This use of touch allows the film to develop its narrative. Shortland also achieves this development through the meeting between Heidi and Bianca‘s (Hollie Andrew) father Roy (Paul Gleeson). Heidi looking for work tries to seduce Roy by touching his back; she pretends his tag is sticking out of his shirt. A moment occurs between the two characters, and is suddenly shut down by Roy. Later in the narrative, Shortlands uses this moment between the two, to destroy Bianca and Heidi’s friendship. The viewer acknowledges the coming of age as there is an obvious lesson learned.
Shortland communicates during the film through Heidi’s hands, making them a motif with in the film. Motifs appear frequently throughout the film; the colour red being one of the main motifs, emerges multiple times. Heidi’s gloves, tail lights of cars and Joe’s red thermal all impact the film greatly, as the audience is able to analyse the use of the colour. Firstly Heidi’s gloves represent her childish nature, the headlights are used to convey the female sexual journey and finally Joe’s red thermal reveals Joe stripping off his layers and accepting the love he has for Heidi.
The use of red works well in developing female sexuality, as it signifies lust, blood and passion. Against the cold isolate backgrounds red resonates with the audience continually as a development of female sexuality and coming of age. “We had to make sure that red was going to appear in the film every 10-15 scenes. Red is like blood or passion and we knew it would have impact against the cold environment” (Shortland, 2004). Another motif of the film, which represents the coming of age story, is Heidi’s scrapbook. The scrapbook reveals to the audience Heidi is still a young girl trying to figure out the world she lives in.
It represents innocence and the hard times Heidi is faced with in her emotional battle of sexuality and love. Melinda Doring, production designer explains, “The scrapbook shows the childlike qualities of Heidi. It reflects her innocence and the way she responds to the world. ” Shortland utilizes the scrapbook to reaffirm the coming of age story. This is evident when Heidi rubs the unicorn in the scrapbook much like the way she rubbed her mothers boyfriends tattoo. This connection, develops both female sexuality and coming of age.
The use of the scrapbook also invites the audience into a private part of Heidi’s character by revealing what she is going through emotionally and how she is using the scrapbook to develop her understanding of the world. “It gives you another inkling as to her character and the fact that she’s going through a lot of emotional stuff and using the book to reframe her world” (Doring, 2004). Shortland executes this to further connect the viewer on a deeper more emotional level. Shortland also states that although the settings are not motifs they highlight the themes of the film, which are interconnected to female sexuality and coming of age. In general, the interiors have warmth to highlight each characters return from the cold blue exteriors. This was used to underline the film’s themes of intimacy and isolation” (Shortland, 2004). Although the original setting of the film had to be changed due to drought, the film dose not lose any emotional connection with the audience. In fact it intrigues the audience, as Australian films are usually depicted as dry and warm. By using a colder climate and the harshness of winter, the audience can read into the fragility of Heidi’s character, believing her coming of age story.
The settings of the film are of lower socio-economic class, in regards to Heidi. This is evident through many of the settings, the stained leaf covered mattress in Heidi’s backyard, the pub in Canberra and the motel in Jindabyne. “We made Heidi’s mum’s house very oppressive with a dark colour palette. Joe’s family house, and Richard’s family house, is completely the opposite, obviously wealthy to contrast Heidi’s own environment” (Doring, 2004). “A lot of Heidi’s environments are dirty and oppressive” (Shortland, 2004). Shortland uses this socio-economical setting or female sexuality and the coming of age to develop, as in that environment it is harder for a young female to learn the difference between sex and love due to role models themselves having a lack of knowledge (Heidi’s mothers boyfriend). “In subject matter classifiable as social realist, it is a film that throughout remains dialectic concerning those wider issues of problematic sex spurned from a lower-socio economic environment, of familial conflict, and gender divides” (Hancock, 2013). It is apparent throughout Somersault (2003) that Shortland develops female sexuality and the coming of age through, narrative, motif and settings.
She achieves this through the narrative by continually forcing Heidi into sexual relationships, to benefit the character in a development of coming of age. Shortland also accomplishes this through the two main motifs. Firstly through the use of Heidi’s red gloves, implying that Heidi is still a child but also to represent lust, blood and passion; in conjunction developing Heidi’s sexuality. Heidi’s coming of age is also represented through the scrapbook motif, this allowing the audience to connect intimately with the character and producing a coming of age quality.
Finally Shortland uses settings to classify her film as a coming of age story intertwined with female sexuality. She achieves this through the use of socio-economic class. In doing so allowing the audience to sympathy’s with Heidi’s character, furthering the development of female sexuality and coming of age. Shortlands film takes the audience into the mind of a sixteen-year-old girl, allowing the viewer to take the same journey as Heidi in developing female sexuality and coming of age on.
Courtney from Study Moose
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