Pentuphouse: ‘Life is like a song’
Della (Gillian Jones) definitively ends her relationship with Dale (Aaron Blabey) then performs at a casino.
Gillian Jones, one of the original inspirations for Pentuphouse, dazzles as she wraps up the film with a closing number, 'At Last’ (written by M Gordon and H Warren). She is also framed in a dazzling environment with such an overload of on-screen detail that it looks almost 3D.
The effect of framing, combined with the camera’s zoom out and away from Della, is in part to make her story recede: she becomes part of the background to the gamblers, all that the audience has just seen unknown to them. Given what Della has just done, there is an irony to the song lyrics. It’s a bittersweet ending, with the emphasis on bitter, which focuses on a power shift in the relationship. Although alone, she is back in charge – or was she in charge all along?
Shortland’s next short film, Flowergirl (1999), plays with a similar shift in power and perception in a relationship.
Summary by Kate Matthews
A portrait of the dying days of the relationship between down-and-out nightclub singer Della (Gillian Jones) and Dale (Aaron Blabey), a younger man constantly on the wrong side of the law.
Pentuphouse curator's notes
Pentuphouse was Cate Shortland’s second short film after Strap On Olympia (1995) and her first project with producer Anthony Anderson, with whom she would go on to make the short Flowergirl (1999) and the feature Somersault (2004). Like both these films, this short drama touches on themes of flawed or dysfunctional relationships, sexual objectification, alienation and outsider experience.
The film opens on a relationship already caught in a loop. Dale and Della each seem stuck in their own way – Dale helpless in the face of his vices, Della at a career dead end and hesitant to break off what she knows is a destructive relationship. The story’s time frame is a little uncertain and some of its events, such as Dale’s criminal activities, are only partly revealed. The plot is not overly concerned with these particulars. Instead it follows shifts and turns in emotion, exposed through interactions between the two leads.
For this reason the fine renderings of character by Gillian Jones and Aaron Blabey are crucial to the story. The contrast between the two generates an escalating, bottled-up tension: he is all wired, paranoid energy; she weary and contained. Robert Moss’s brooding score and the setting of most of the action within a confined space, Della’s apartment block, further build a mood of claustrophobia and dread.
Speaking to NFSA's australianscreen in June 2009, Shortland explained that she wrote Pentuphouse with Jones in mind after seeing her in a 1996 production of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist at Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney. She also cites cinematic influences like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), gay cinema and the work of Todd Haynes, in particular for melodrama and visions of relationships in which there are age differences or women objectify men.
Pentuphouse’s location was another inspiration. The film was shot in the Waterloo Housing Commission flats in Redfern, which Shortland visited as part of her work with an Aboriginal education unit at the time. Finding inspiration in place is a recurring element in her work, something she says she is only fully realising with hindsight: 'It’s land and place and architecture that often inspires me. That becomes part of the characters; it becomes part of what they’re touching, what they’re seeing, everything.’
Pentuphouse was an AFC-funded short, shot on 35mm. According to Anderson and Shortland, both their shorts were crucial to the development of their creative process and working practices, allowing them to assemble a creative team with a shared language and acting as a calling card for further work. Pentuphouse’s production designer Melinda Doring and editor Scott Gray have worked on all of Shortland’s subsequent films to date. Director of photography Caroline Constantine worked as second unit DOP on Somersault (2004).
Shortland next studied at AFTRS, where she made the film Joy (2000), then directed episodes of TV series The Secret Life of Us (2001–04) and Bad Cop, Bad Cop (2002) before making Somersault (2004).
Pentuphouse screened at multiple international festivals including the 1999 Berlin, Edinburgh, Sydney and Melbourne International Film Festivals and Flickerfest. Its awards included a Cinematography Award at the Montecatini Filmvideo International Festival and a Dendy Award for Best Short Film (under 15 minutes) at the Sydney Film Festival. In the same year, Cate Shortland’s Flowergirl (1999) won the Dendy Award for Best Short Film (over 15 minutes).
Notes by Kate Matthews