Somersault: ‘I’ve done bad things’
Abbie Cornish was 21 years old when this film was made and the integrity and vulnerability of her performance is astonishing.
After an unhappy first night in Jindabyne Heidi (Abbie Cornish) returns to the pub during the day. Joe (Sam Worthington), who has seen her the night before, buys her a drink. That night, they begin to confide in each other.
Summary by Paul Byrnes
Joe’s first instinct on approaching Heidi is to reach out and touch her face – an ironic gesture, because the more he gets to know her later in the film, the less comfortable he seems with gestures of affection and intimacy. The film has several sequences where we seem to enter Heidi’s direct consciousness, so intimate is the relationship between Abbie Cornish and the camera. One of these is the scene in front of the mirror, where Heidi studies her face, trying on different looks. Somersault is partly about the moment of transition from child to woman, and this scene perfectly captures her shifting sense of self. The lurid pink light behind her head helps to establish a sense of how separate she’s feeling from those around her. The pink light carries on in the way her face is lit when she returns to talk to Joe in the bar. She tells him that she kissed her friend’s boyfriend – but we already know it was her mother’s boyfriend. That’s what she really means by ‘I’ve done bad things’.
Sixteen-year-old Heidi (Abbie Cornish) kisses her mother’s boyfriend, just as her mother Nicole (Olivia Pigeot) walks back into the house. Confused and frightened, Heidi takes the bus to Jindabyne in the Snowy Mountains, where she meets Joe (Sam Worthington) the son of well-off farmers. Joe takes her to a local motel, but he can’t wait to get away the next morning. The motel proprietor Irene (Lynette Curran) gives Heidi a place to stay, and she gets a job serving in the service station with a local girl, Bianca (Hollie Andrew). Heidi’s affection for Joe grows, despite his infrequent visits and his emotional coolness. Drunk and desperate to talk to somebody, Joe goes to a gay neighbour, Richard (Erik Thompson). Heidi returns to the local bars, seeking affection from drunken ski tourists. At her lowest ebb, Heidi and Joe finally begin to speak honestly to each other.
Somersault curator's notes
Cate Shortland’s debut feature, the story of two young people trying to understand love, is as perceptive as it is painful. It could be set anywhere in the world, but it’s given a very Australian tone by the shadings of the characters. Emotion doesn’t come easily to the men in Shortland’s script, and it’s intriguing that Ray Lawrence’s Jindabyne, made a year later, has many similar themes. In this sense the weight given to Sam Worthington’s character, Joe, is almost as important as that given to Abbie Cornish’s character. The difference is that Shortland enters the dream-like state of the mind of Heidi. The turmoil in Joe’s head is observed more from an external point of view, although both characters are presented as mysteries, to themselves as much as to us. Why does Heidi kiss her mother’s boyfriend in the first place? Why does Joe seek answers with his gay neighbour Richard? Is there a reason she approaches all men with a shocking, and dangerously open, sexuality?
Shortland doesn’t give concrete answers to these questions, but that gives the film a great sense of freedom. Her approach to story is similarly open; there is very little in the way of conventional plot in Somersault, but no lack of dramatic emotion. The whole film hinges on the faces of these two young actors, both of whom give the kind of quiet, internal performance that’s rare in Australian film. Abbie Cornish was 21 when the film was made, but convincing as a 16-year-old waif. The integrity and vulnerability of her performance is astonishing, and Shortland does a great job of getting us inside her head. Sam Worthington was 27, and a graduate of NIDA, The National Institute of Dramatic Art and this role established him as one of the most promising young male leads in the industry.
Shortland’s background as a photographer is evident in the way she has imagined this film: it’s full of textures, like the leaves blowing in the old pool, or the blue evening light above the lake. It’s also very tactile, as in the way Cornish reacts to the feel of the new red gloves on her hands, or the rejection of hand holding by Joe. There are few films in the Australian canon that depict intimacy in such a frank and troubled way. It’s both heaven and hell for these two young people, a sort of loaded gun of emotion and physical longing that almost destroys them. The film won a clean sweep of 13 awards at the AFI awards in 2004, something that no other film has achieved. It’s true that it was not a great year in terms of the competition, but that should not obscure the fact of how good Somersault is.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
This clip shows a sequence in which Joe (Sam Worthington) and Heidi (Abbie Cornish) first meet in the Jindabyne pub. Having approached Heidi, Joe immediately establishes a rapport with her. At a table they make small talk that conveys Heidi’s enigmatic reserve, Joe’s laconic charm and their mutual attraction. The scene cuts to the bathroom where Heidi apprehensively studies her reflection. On her return to the bar they have a more intimate conversation. Background music underlines the mood changes in the clip.
Educational value points
- The use of symbolic gestures in the opening moments of the sequence reveal a key theme of the film’s narrative. Joe’s removal of glitter from Heidi’s face at their initial meeting is symbolic of Heidi’s thematic transition from girl to woman, the glitter representing her childishness. Joe’s action both foreshadows the evolution of Heidi into an adult and his direct role in it through their romantic and sexual relationship.
- Lighting, particularly the interplay of light and dark as the camera moves between Heidi and Joe, is used to reflect their inner feelings. When revealing their misdeeds at the bar, Heidi’s face is consistently obscured by shadow, alluding to an ambiguity and/or deceit in her intentions and revelations. Heidi is indeed hiding something from Joe, the identity of the person she kissed, whom the audience already know is her mother’s boyfriend.
- Throughout the clip the music soundtrack reflects the tentative beginning and amplification of the growing sexual attraction between Heidi and Joe. Initially muted and bluesy, the music increases in volume, tempo and intensity when Heidi rehearses her smile and mannerisms in the bathroom, marking a key transition and revealing her sense of resolve and sexual intent towards Joe. This is reinforced by lyrics of the song, 'The loved one' (1966).
- The symbolic use of the mirror in the bathroom scene where Heidi at first regards herself and later parodies the woman next to her, combined with the ‘floating’ camera, places the viewer in Heidi’s inner world. Gazing at herself in the mirror Heidi is objectifying herself and, as it is not depicted from her own perspective but from the disembodied camera behind her, the viewer is placed in Heidi’s mind’s eye and made aware of her preoccupied state of mind.
- The altered pace of the scene in which Heidi looks at herself in the mirror is achieved in the editing process. The footage has been slowed down by adding more than the standard 24 frames per second, which also distorts the ambient audio, in this case the voices in the background. This results in a sense of being drawn into Heidi’s consciousness, one that is possibly disturbed, and may be a precursor of what will be revealed at a later stage.
- The colour palette of this clip indicates Heidi’s changing emotional state. The distinct colours in each of the three scenes are instructive for their clear associations. In the first scene the cold, icy blue represents Heidi’s trepidation and isolation. In the following scene the primary colour is hot pink, identifying her openness and even sexual arousal, while the final scene is bathed in a warm yellow, signifying caring, joy and yet caution.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
It’s daytime. A man and a woman stand near each other, looking out the window. Blues harmonica plays in the background.
Joe Got something on your cheek. Look.
Heidi It’s glitter.
Joe I’m Joe.
Joe Would you like a drink, Heidi?
They sit down with their drinks.
Joe Where you from?
Heidi All different places.
Joe Different to this?
Heidi It’s nice here.
Joe It’s alright. Just full of fuckin’ tourists.
Heidi Like me?
Joe No, not like you. Saw you here dancing last night.
Heidi I saw you too.
Joe Where was I sitting?
Heidi I saw you at the bar buying a beer.
Joe You’re lying.
Heidi Maybe I had a dream about you.
It’s nighttime at the pub. Loud music plays. Heidi stands in front of the mirror in the women’s restroom. She returns to Joe.
Joe Did you find it?
Joe (looking at her earrings) They’re nice.
Heidi They’re bluebirds.
Joe Did your boyfriend give them to you?
Heidi I don’t have a boyfriend.
Joe What about last night?
Heidi I wouldn’t go out with someone like him.
Joe He looked alright.
Heidi You can’t tell what people are like just by looking at them!
Joe No, you can’t.
Heidi Underneath, people are … are different, like bad different.
Joe How can you tell? ‘Cause I look at you, and you don’t look too bad.
Heidi I’ve done bad things.
Joe Yeah? Like what?
Heidi You say a bad thing you’ve done first.
Joe I ran over a dog the other day.
Heidi Did you mean to?
Joe No. Your turn.
Heidi I kissed my friend’s boyfriend.
Joe Is that it?
Joe I don’t think that’s too bad. I think maybe runnin’ over a bloody dog is worse.