Cate Shortland, the latest indie drama director to ply their trade under the presumably stimulating and certainly lucrative restrictions of the Marvel machine with this weekend’s Black Widow, saw her feature career kick off with another timely event: The Cannes Film Festival. In 2004, her debut Somersault screened in Un Certain Regard alongside films from directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Ousmane Sembène. It then demolished the AACTA Awards (effectively the Aussie Oscars, or Aus-cars), winning every feature category. Those who enjoy her take on comicky spycraft or those simply curious about the filmmaker will find much to love in the hypnotic, isolated façades crafted by Somersault’s coming-of-age characters.
While the hazy film is initially about Abbie Cornish’s Heidi, a schoolgirl fleeing her suburban home after she’s caught kissing her mother’s scuzzy boyfriend, the ebb and flow of desire and need finds its rhythm once she runs into Sam Worthington’s bottled-up Joe. They spot each other in a ski town drinking hole, where Heidi’s been hunting out a place to stay. Heidi navigates her newly desperate situation with a resigned sexual confidence, which the film briefly hints she’s seen all too often from her mother. This is the way to get by. You smile, you drink, you touch, you go home to the (sometimes) warm bed—and you survive. It’s both dreamily organic—Shortland shoots underlit bars and clubs with a chaotic warmth, constant motion and a camera that stands in for our own confused eye, sometimes losing and searching for its subjects—and mechanically repetitive. And what is maturing past adolescence than a process by the learning human machine, often one of trial and error—of observation and mimicry?
This is never more obvious than in the scene where Heidi practices smiling in the pub’s bathroom mirror as a girl next to her applies makeup; when Heidi notices, she copies her lip-smacking finish. It’s as much like watching a person put on a mask as seeing a super-spy don a disguise. Underneath this newly sexual being is also someone who delights in snarfing down a gas station donut. To really tie the film to Widow, the rawest glimpses we get at Heidi’s interrupted, mid-evolution girlhood is when she’s alone: Frolicking with a new pair of gloves and singing “Miss Mary Mack” after a series of seductions and lies (some more successful than others), the ethereal blonde echoes the brackish adolescent blend of child and adult found in the opening flashback of Shortland’s MCU film. Strip away all that Avenging and there’s still a story of a girl needing to put on a front to carry on.
Reflecting this is Joe, who—unsure of his sexuality or his place in the world—retreats behind a hyper-masculine façade. His square jaw stays clenched, he shoves his mates around, he’s a magnet to women (including Heidi)...but that same magnetism seems to switch polarities and repel if you draw too near. He recoils from touches that melt the rest of the single-minded men in Heidi’s life, and he seeks solace in the company of his gay neighbor Richard (Erik Thomson). His emotional isolation is such that sure, maybe he’s confronting his conflicted queerness, but he might simply be scared of falling into the same sad routine of the men Heidi picks up. While Heidi professes to be close to Joe, he fights tooth and nail against this false intimacy. He might not know the exact difference between love and sex, but he knows there is one.
This buried turmoil, which catches in both characters’ throats, gets a bit of an on-the-nose visual metaphor as a man giving Heidi a ride home brings her to a submerged town, covered by a lake. It’s a tense moment because of Shortland’s close-framed camera and sharp scripting of creepy masculinity, but we’ve already gotten the point. Yeah, yeah—lots hidden under the surface. Cornish and Worthington’s performances are too good to be summarized by such trite imagery, both constantly reeking of desperation, horniness and repression. A far more apt and subtle sequence, of Joe melting the ice off his windshield with a thermos of hot water, captures the dueling temperatures of the movie and the colors at play. Heidi can see the breath of men she’s about to sleep with; she chugs hot chilis when her request for validation is rejected. Shortland cast the film in icy blues until it bursts into the suffocating warm shades of a sleazy pick-up. These moments of sexual potential truly seem like the only place for intimacy in this world, and an arms-length illusion is the price of admission—be it as a coquettish free spirit or a strong ‘n’ silent hunk.
But as Heidi’s experimentation and play-acting only grow more desperate and reckless, she realizes this isn’t true. An older woman, the landlady she duped for a free room, imparts some wisdom—finally some empathy after so many veneers. The film’s hesitant optimism relies on the kindness, forgiveness (of self and of others) and connection possible between honest people. Intriguingly, Shortland’s Widow shares some similar themes despite lacking Shortland’s voice in the script. Widow and her flawed family of assassins, even her antagonists, are hamstrung by their personae and pasts. Even if it’s just a shade, a hint at some greater understanding of humanity, its presence certainly makes Widow better than it’d be otherwise—and it should inspire those leaving the superhero film thinking more about its family drama than its action to seek out Somersault.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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