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Somersault Review

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by AVForums Sep 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    Somersault Review
    Australian director Cate Shortland makes her feature film bow with this coming-of-age tale which was glowingly received upon it's unveiling at the Cannes festival, and swept the board at the Australian Film Institute. It captured a staggering 13 awards, including best picture, best director for Shortland, and a best actress award for its star Abbie Cornish. The actual basic plot of the movie is of the 'back of a postage stamp' variety. Heidi (Cornish) is a sixteen-year old girl living with her single mother (Olivia Pigeot). After being caught in a compromising position with her parent's rough 'n ready boyfriend, Heidi is forced to leave home in disgrace. She travels to the ski resort of Lake Jindabyne in a futile search to find a former boyfriend. After finding employment and renting a modest flat from the affable motel owner Irene (Lynette Curran), Heidi befriends workmate Bianca (Hollie Andrew), and more crucially local worker Joe (Sam Worthington). The two embark upon an emotionally fraught and labyrinthine relationship which has far reaching consequences for both of them. As mentioned above this is a film that has generated an astounding quantity of critical fervour across the board (its packaging is adorned with top scores and accolades from a whole host of leading publications). The key issue here is; does it justify this overwhelming reception, or is it all critical mouth and no trousers? The truth in the matter is that 'Somersault' sits somewhere in-between. Its success to some degree can be attributed to the fact it is certainly a critics film. There is ample opportunity to arouse the chin-stroking intellectual in you as you mull over the movie's finer points with a bottle of vintage Beaujolais and some cheesy nibbles. Does that in itself make it a good film? Not necessarily. A worthwhile endeavour maybe, but not a whole lot more. Being a glass half full kind of chap, let's look at the positives first. The cinematography by Robert Humphreys is frequently astounding. The ski resort setting provides sumptuous scenery, and it's all artfully shot in a visually pleasing colour scheme of cool blues and whites. Shortland certainly has an eye for composition and memorable mise-en-scene, and arguably her visuals carry a weightier punch in conveying the emotional mood of the piece than the script itself. Unfortunately, this major plus point also lends itself to an exploration of the limitations of the piece, being as it is in many respects a shining example of style over content. Some slack must be cut to Shortland here, as a first time director she is obviously in the process of finding her feet and settling into her own distinctive approach. Unfortunately this becomes problematic on 'Somersault'. Her attempts at nailing a distinctive flavour and style here trip the film up. Where the film is intended to be ambiguous and intellectually brooding, it merely serves to become laborious and sluggish. In this artful environment character development suffers too, which in an actual character piece is cinematic suicide. Conversations between the principal leads are often stylised to the point of distraction. Interaction is limited to a pithy sentence or two followed by an ever-so-meaningful stare into the middle distance. Ultimately, when we need to sympathise or identify with these characters we are left emotionally shipwrecked, cold and indifferent. We just don't know them at all, their motivations, their inner feelings; all is kept behind this cold apathetic façade. Aside from Irene (where Lynette Curran is at least allowed to bring some warmth to the role), none of these folks come across as noticeably likeable. This un-engaging atmosphere is further hamstrung by the fact there are a lot of characters spread thin here. We have Heidi's family, Joe's family, Joe's friends, Bianca's family (the list goes on) involved and in play at some point in the narrative, and none with any real character development or any more than tenuous links to the expansion of the plotline. When the dust settles, 'Somersault' comes across more as a work of visual art than a true fully developed cinematic piece. Like a painting it's wonderfully realised visually, the composition and splendour is all there. But look deeper and you realise it's actually only one-dimensional and cold to the touch.