The first thing you notice about Cate Shortland’s two feature films to date is their physical beauty. Each moment on screen seems to vibrate with textural, sensual detail. Whether it’s wet hair dripping down pale young shoulders, and fingers stroking an SS badge on a soldier’s uniform in Lore (2012), or Abbie Cornish exhaling misty breath and clapping her red-mittened hands in slow motion in Somersault (2004), Shortland seems incapable of creating a banal or flat image.
Given this visual flair, it’s unsurprising to learn that Shortland gained a degree in Fine Arts before she graduated from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) in 2000. Her three multi-award winning short films Pentuphouse (1998), Flower Girl (1999) and Joy (2000) announced a talented young filmmaker with a particular ability to create moods and tell stories with sound and image rather than extended dialogue.
Shortland’s interest in exploring youthful female sexuality and identity is first evident in Joy, where we follow a rebellious teenager hanging out in a suburban mall, applying makeup, shoplifting and flirting (at one point, she lifts her t-shirt defiantly in front of some ogling boys). Frozen frames intercept these scenes with written criticisms and put-downs scrolling across the screen – ‘You’re not leaving the house like that young lady!’.
With her long blonde hair and wild ways, Joy seems like a precursor to the lead character Heidi (Abbie Cornish) in Shortland’s successful debut feature Somersault, a sensitive and candid portrait of a young woman learning the difference between sex and intimacy in the small Australian snow-town of Jindabyne.
Shortland’s next film, the acclaimed German Australian co-production Lore, also deals with a teenage girl, this time the daughter of a Nazi SS Officer, who takes her younger siblings on a dangerous journey after the fall of Hitler and learns to trust a man who she’s been brought up to think of as the enemy. Themes of budding sexuality and loss of innocence are evident again here, but the astonishing scope of this film reveals a filmmaker with an interest in history, racism and national guilt as well as intimate personal relationships.
A frequent writer of Australian television drama (including The Kettering Incident, Devil’s Playground and the ‘Rosie’ episode of The Slap), Shortland’s third feature film is due late in 2016. Based on Melanie Joosten’s novel of the same name, Berlin Syndrome stars Teresa Palmer as an Australian photojournalist in Berlin whose one-night stand turns into something more sinister. One thing is certain: Shortland’s take on this will be sensual, intelligent and visually striking, even when the story is at its darkest.
Sadly, few female film directors in Australia get the opportunity to build up a body of work. Though she may not be prolific, Shortland is already one of those few, and she’s an auteur to watch.
Watch both Cate Shortland’s feature films at SBS On Demand
Debuting in Un Certain Regard at Cannes and winning a record-breaking 13 AFI Awards in 2004, Somersault’s success attracted a significant backlash when some (especially male) critics accused it of slowness, lack of plot and an overly ‘arty’ aesthetic. Watching it now, this seems quite unfair. Somersault is a stunning small gem filled with intimate moments and undeniable emotional threat. Yes, it’s beautifully shot (by Robert Humphreys, who first worked with Shortland on her short films) and artfully constructed, with an indigo blue and bright red colour palette. (Every 15 scenes, there is an insertion of a red object – but if Kieslowski can do such things, why can’t Shortland?) The wintry landscape of bare black branches, cold lakes and snowflakes is perfectly matched by a spare, tinkly soundtrack from Sydney band Decoder Ring. These elements evoke sensuality and melancholic beauty – and they’re in perfect harmony with the themes and the lead character of the film. Heidi (Abbie Cornish) is a sixteen-year-old girl who experiences the world primarily through touch and especially through sex.
Heidi doesn’t know any other way to connect or survive after she’s thrown out of home for kissing her mother’s boyfriend. Adrift in the snow resort town of Jindabyne, she builds a temporary life working at a service station and sleeping with Joe (Sam Worthington), the inarticulate son of a wealthy local farmer. Together they find a tentative intimacy, but Joe has his own insecurities and confusions and Heidi must face the thing she’s running from. Both Cornish and Worthington do wonders with their barely verbal roles, and this feels like a very Australian love story.
This ambitious and accomplished German language film, shot on location across five German territories, confirmed Shortland’s skills as both a beautiful image-maker and a global storyteller. Set in 1945 just after the fall of Hitler, the film follows 16-year-old Lore (Saskia-Sophie Rosendahl) who is left in charge of her four younger siblings when their Nazi parents are imprisoned. Dodging the Allied Forces and confronting images of horror wherever they go, the children must cross the Black Forest to the Baltic Sea to get to safety at their grandmother’s house in Hamburg. Brought up to believe in the ‘filth’ of Jews, Lore must learn to trust Thomas (Kai Malina), a fellow refugee she meets along the way. There’s an attraction there too, that both seduces and repulses her in this very particular sexual awakening.
Despite the scope of the story, Shortland and her Australian Director of Photography Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Snowtown) keep the focus close and shallow for much of the time. Stunning landscapes are visible in the background, but details like the fragile fluff of a dandelion on the breeze, or the slow horror of a rotting corpse create an intimate mood. Shortland was keen to shoot on 16mm to create the grain of older film, and there’s a blurred beauty that works well with the primary-coloured palette to evoke the period and this very Aryan lead character. There are time shifts and deliberate narrative lapses – (editing is by Veronika Jenet, who cut The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, among others). Many things are left unexplained here, but it’s not a difficult film to understand. When we have so many holocaust stories on film these days, this one will stay with you for its ability to capture the texture of a violent change of heart.
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