It has been quite a while since we have had an Australian film that is not a comedy and one which features snow rather than sand and sea. Director Cate Shortland makes her feature film debut with Somersault, the first Australian feature for some time to receive a standing ovation at Cannes.

Somersault looks at intimacy, and how we confuse intimacy with love, through the experiences of a 16-year-old girl who, according to the director, is a sort of angel with dirty wings looking for love in a gothic fairytale world.

Although Cate Shortland has made a number of award-winning short films, including Flowergirl and Joy, which both dealt with rebellious teenagers, she is better known locally as a director of the television series The Secret Life Of Us.

Shortland says it took her seven years to bring her ideas to the screen and along the way she lists among her major influences gay German director Rainer Fassbinder, especially his film Fear Eats The Soul, and the dark photography of Bill Henson and Nan Goldin. These are rather unusual influences for an Australian director but make sense when Shortland reveals that she wanted to tell a stylised story about a disturbed young girl that would feature a lake. The lake is Jindabyne and the setting is the blue depths of winter.

Abbie Cornish, who is 21 and made her debut in The Monkey’s Mask, is outstanding as Heidi. Cornish puts in a subtle and nuanced performance as a girl who is at once both a vulnerable, na? innocent and a resilient survivor who comes to realise that her body is her only asset and that sexual allure is a tool for getting what she wants. Sam Worthington (Bootmen, Gettin’ Square) is establishing himself as the Australian leading man of the moment and puts in a textured, meaty performance as Heidi’s erstwhile boyfriend Joe. The cast is rounded out by Australian veteran Lynette Curran, Leah Purcell (Lantana) and Olivia Pigeot.

Somersault also has a gay character played by Kiwi-born stage actor Erik Thomson. Shortland uses this subplot to deepen her exploration of masculinity as experienced by the character Joe, particularly the oft confused line between intimacy and sexual interest.

Essentially the film is really a non-conventional coming-of-age, sexual awakening story told from a girl’s perspective, which many male critics have found confronting. At least the gay character is portrayed sensitively, not as the usual sexual piranha ready to jump any available bones.

Robert Humphreys’ (Walking On Water) washed out, blue-toned cinematography is superb, as is the original music score by Decoder Ring.

Somersault won’t appeal to everyone but it is refreshing to finally see an Australian film trying to deal with universal issues such as love, sex, intimacy, adolescence and the closed society of small towns.

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