Scan | Journal of Media Arts Culture
Volume 10 Number 1 2013

Visceral Shock in Cate Shortland’s Somersault

Grady Hancock

A gesture expands into gymnastics, rage is expressed through a somersault… (Eisenstein in Gerould 1974: 75).

In an article found in the edited volume Reinventing Film Studies, Nowell-Smith offers a pithy statement: “Films mean. But they do not just mean,” (2000: 16). This statement says much about the state of traditional film studies and the attention it has long paid to narrative meaning-making; critical studies of film then largely excluding other properties of film as being less than or unimportant in terms of social critique or discursive analysis. This paper aims to explore one of those largely excluded aspects, that is, the role of affect in film as a potential social and critical force. Affect can be found in all film to varying ends, however those films that give primacy to such moments are oft-overlooked for their capacity to be critical, to transgress, to transform. The possibilities for discursive commentary and social critique through those filmic moments of affect and viscerality are underexplored; this article takes one step toward acknowledging the critical potentiality of affective moments, and in particular moments of visceral shock, in film.

Feeling the way through Somersault

Cate Shortland’s 2004 debut feature film, Somersault, opens with handheld camera shots of bushland, the camera skirting close to the trunks of passing trees so as to capture the rough of the bark. Panning down the bark of the trees the camera momentarily stills itself, framing the leaf-littered ground amongst which a dirty mattress peeks through serving momentarily as backdrop for the film’s title to briefly appear (Figure 1). Soon cutting to a suburban street, the streetlights and passing cars barely distinguishable through both the dim of morning light and a heavy blanket of fog. A crossfade introduces an almost impossibly blurry shot of an indistinct moving figure, flitting in and then out of frame.

Figure 1: Title Sequence Somersault (2004)

The closeness of the camera’s gaze coupled with the unreliable clarity of the handheld camera work allows for only glimpses of recognisable object or place in these title shots – the blurred vision of long distorted fingers grabbing at fabric (Figure 2); tousled blonde hair that appears and disappears again behind a floral patterned bed sheet, small white hands clutching at clothes pegs, the buzz and zip of the fabric being pulled from the metal clothes line string. Fair skinned and beautiful, the profile of a face is finally revealed before cutting away to a wide-angle shot of protagonist Heidi (Abbie Cornish) now fully formed before us pulling clothes down from an iconic Australian Hills Hoist, sentinel, in a suburban backyard (Figure 3).

Figure 2: Blurred Vision Somersault (2004)
Figure 3: ‘Heidi’ (Abbie Cornish) Appears Somersault (2004)

There is much to be gleaned as to the nature of this film from these opening titles. The punctuating child-like music establishes a countenance of innocence congruent with the softly tinted lens, presenting the world in primary blues and reds. This is the first established instance of a discourse of innocence, later consolidated in the introduction of Heidi proper, her youthfulness not only represented in appearance but also demeanour. There is the slightest of nods to the coming disturbance of such innocence with the discarded mattress, dirty and disquieting amongst the otherwise tranquil setting; the mattress both a symbol of the underlying social realist ethos of the film and also the sexual politics enacted throughout.

As establishing shots go, there is little spoon-feeding in Somersault; we are left to feel our way through the film’s environment for a significant portion of the opening titles. There is a forewarning - a preparation - occurring in these moments, as this is a film that speaks as much to the body as it does to the mind. And to further the aforementioned Nowell-Smith, who aptly notes:

Films mean. But they do not just mean. Because they can be described with the aid of language we can be led to think that description can substitute for the film. This is the perennial temptation of what I have called the linguistic analogy. But films also work in less describable ways. They work as painting and music do, partly through meaning but partly in other ways; partly in ways that have linguistic equivalents and partly in ways that do not. The move in the direction of semiotics in the 1970’s was “indeterminate” and could not be brought within a rational schema. But the need for such a rational schema has become questionable. Too many of the things that films do evade attempts to subsume them under the heading of meaning (2000: 16).

The opening titles work in this manner of eluding linguistic explanation. Vivian Sobchack, in her paper “What My Fingers Knew”, spoke of her striking awareness of the “gap that exists between our actual experience of the cinema and the theory that we academic film scholars write to explain it – or, perhaps more aptly, to explain it away” (2000). Accordingly, when critics initially discussed Shortland’s Somersault there was a fishing for a descriptive framework in attempting to recapture the viewing on the page, to speak the unspeakable, one critic writing:

It’s a film that invites you to feel what’s happening on the screen as well as to watch it. The sound of a car thumping across a bridge, or of the flame of a gas burner whoomping alight. The effect of hot water being poured on to a windscreen that has iced up overnight, or of a body arching in erotic pleasure. What it’s like inside a bar with the music turned up loud. Shortland insists that the world is made up of all kinds of experiences, not merely those that push the plot forward (Ryan 2004).

It is this insistence on those elements outside of narrative logic and explicit storytelling that is most anomalous within Somersault (and films like it). Certainly, feeling can never be divorced from the watching of film - and nor should critical analysis be exclusionary of this intrinsic duality of film. Nonetheless, what murky waters do we delve into when attempting to speak of things that are purposively unspoken? How do we utter what can’t be properly named but only experienced, felt?

The questions being raised herein is what potential is to be found, what meaning garnered, in the analysis of those anomalous, sensuously producing affective aspects of film? In conjunction with more traditional film analysis, of representation and narrative for example, is there potential for the renewal of old discussions on well-worn discourse and entrenched ideologies – does Somersault, in those moments of visceral affect, open up new space, for instance, in discussing discourses of femininity and sex/adolescent sexuality?

Discourses of femininity and sexuality

Essentially a coming of age film, Somersault follows the fate of fifteen-year-old Heidi as she journeys away from her home to the cold mountain town of Jindabyne. Heidi runs away from her home in suburban Canberra following an inappropriate sexual encounter with her mother’s boyfriend, Adam (Damian de Montemas). Having received an offer from an unknown man to work for him in the snowfields of Jindabyne, Heidi takes a bus and makes her way up the mountain. Upon arriving, the initial prospect of work falls through leaving Heidi entirely stranded. At this point Heidi’s sexual journey truly begins, as she both explores her own sexuality and comes to use sex as currency so as to have a roof over her head and more than her own company. Heidi lurches from one reckless and sexually charged encounter to the next, along the way meeting a young local farmer, Joe (Sam Worthington). What begins as a sexual relationship soon becomes the force by which both characters come to face confused emotional states and deeply personal issues.

A critical analysis of Somersault finds a number of discourses at work – most notably those of gender, of femininity and masculinity, discourses of adolescence and of sexuality. It is a film that seems to actively probe the sexual constraints of femininity and adolescent (hetero)sexuality. Of most particular interest herein are those discourses of femininity at work within Somersault; on the surface femininity within the film is understood as the normative model of values and behavior traditionally attributed to the female sex and most often read as informed by a wider patriarchal ideology.

Femininity, in the broader sense, has most often been regarded as oppositional to that of masculinity; bound by the domestic space as opposed to the public space; emotion-driven as opposed to logic-driven; and so on. Perhaps most integral and polarising in discussions of feminine discourse is its relation to sex. Within normative discourses of femininity sexual promiscuity, and indeed any form of sexual agency, is regarded as unfeminine. As Beauvoir attests:

One is not born, but rather becomes a woman…it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine (1989: 267).

Heidi herself is presented as a problematised site of femininity. She is represented very early on completing domestic tasks (hanging washing, making coffee for her mother’s boyfriend), as well as being routinely sexualised and conversely punished for her sexual voracity (most acutely represented in Heidi’s displacement from the home, the domestic space, usually attributed to constructions of femininity).

An early scene of Heidi fetching her mother from the pub establishes these problematic and competing discourses that come to bracket Heidi throughout the film. Appearing small next to the pub counter, Heidi is shown as though a curious child picking up and fiddling with objects, and responds in near whispers like a shy school girl when engaged with conversation. Thus, when Heidi first comes to be sexualised it seems incongruous. It seems wrong. It holds with it both a currency of young female over-sexualisation, propagated intertextually in wider media texts, and impinges upon the character of Heidi as enacting a subversive, or oppositional, feminine identity. She is beautiful and curious and sexualises herself to a point of desirability - all current normative feminine attributes - and then ruptures that normativity by acting upon her sexual curiosity.

An alternative reading could find Heidi to represent somewhat of a “cultural artifact of changing ideologies” (Wills 2008: 241) in regards to feminine sexuality. That is, Heidi is both seen to be sexual object and sexual agent, routinely sexualised by others as well as acting upon her own sexual urges thus somewhat bucking the normative depiction of the female body as only object, or indeed sexless. However, Heidi’s sexual agency seems not borne out of desire per se, but is rather the only way Heidi knows how to connect, a behavior that proves to be dangerous. The character of Heidi complicates normative readings of sexuality as feminine or unfeminine, disempowered or empowered by showing them as interwoven and not mutually exclusive. In particular, the framing of Heidi as child-like and innocent is seemingly in direct contrast with her sexual activities. However, the intimacy of the camera and the visceral attachment to Heidi collides these contrasting elements together in a way that resists easy explanation and reorients us towards ideas of femininity.

From very early on Heidi is shown to instigate a number of sexual encounters, first with her mother’s boyfriend, then on her first night in Jindabyne, as well as the morning after, engaging in acts of seduction in attempts to secure a job as well as stave off her aloneness. These initial encounters are important, as they establish Heidi’s misplaced desire for company, for connection with others following her leaving home.

Affective social realism

In many regards, Somersault fits a contemporary social realist mode of address, particularly in the grey overtones of suburban Canberra following the opening titles. Similarly, in subject matter classifiable as social realist, it is a film that throughout remains dialectic concerning those wider issues of problematic sex spurned from a lower-socio economic environment, of familial conflict, and gender divides. However, the formal approach that the film takes presents an interesting opportunity in redressing these issues outside of the traditional bounds of the social realist film.

Given that conventional social realist films have traditionally placed greater emphasis on narrative structure and the gritty, raw drama itself, form and style is frequently found to be secondary though rather formulaic, as Hallam and Marshment note:

The words “gritty” and “raw” tend to embrace both the thematic elements of the films – which often confront the troublesome relationship between deprived environmental conditions and human psychology – and the ‘no frills’ style in which they are made. Frequently low budget productions made on cheaper film formats that create grainy images unsaturated with colour, the camera style of social realism has traditionally favoured the use of a documentary ‘look’ achieved coupling simple continuity editing strategies with observational camerawork (2000: 192).

Though still carrying a social realist ethos, broadly speaking, Somersault enacts a simple shift in focus, away from the observational, the effective, and onto the sensuous, the affective. Drawing from Barthes, we find in Somersault that “value [is] shifted to the sumptuous rank of the signifier” (1975: 65).

In defining affect, Shouse notes feelings are “personal and biographical”, emotions are “social”, whereas affect is “prepersonal” and thus able to be “transmitted between bodies” as there is no distinction between “individual and environment” (Shouse 2005). The provocation of emotion, as a projection or display of feeling, in film is undeniable; affect, however, is much more problematic. This is the unspeakable referred to by Nowell-Smith (2000); it is the unformed and unstructured moments proffered in Somersault, such as when Heidi’s feet are shown pressed against the plaited tassels of a motel rug, when she runs her fingers over the cold smooth of a bathroom tile, or presses her hands upon a lover’s heaving chest.

Borrowing from Brian Massumi’s (2002) definitions of affect, Eric Shouse continues:

The power of affect lies in the fact that it is unformed and unstructured (abstract). It is affect’s “abstractivity” that makes it transmittable in ways that feelings and emotions are not, and it is because affect is transmittable that it is potentially such a powerful social force. (Shouse 2005: 15)

The affective moments within Somersault, above all, spring forth from Heidi’s burgeoning understanding of her own sexuality, the ties that bind in feminine discourse both grant her power as a desirable body and simultaneously disempower her as a sexual body. As Heidi explores both herself and those around her, the camera is most often in close-up, though when broken from its intimate moorings she can be seen in the harshest of lights. From the more conventional voyeur’s perspective we may well wonder why Heidi would put herself in such harm’s way. We may ask what her promiscuity is achieving. In other words, there is space, both figuratively and literally, for more discursively formed critical readings to take place given distance from Heidi herself.

Sensate identification

The literal closeness to Heidi works toward an intimacy that transcends Heidi’s imprudent actions that are, in no uncertain terms, alienating and confronting at times. Of course, in formal language the use of close-ups, or indeed extreme close-ups, have a resonant currency in creating a sense of intimacy, or involvement, from a viewer’s perspective. When Heidi is at her most vulnerable, we are brought in even closer to see the prickle of her skin, the blush of her bruise. This closeness provides a liminal space between the ideologically bathed narrative action, imploring instead an embodied, sensate identification, a space for empathy to take root not removed from but rather to the side of discursive interference.

Thus, a unique aspect of Somersault is the emphatic attention given to the body, to embodied responses (both the protagonists and our own), and, most repetitively to touch. Heidi’s hands, her fingers, become a recurrent motif particularly in the early stages of the film. There are multiple close-up shots, often extreme close-ups, of Heidi touching – literally feeling her way through her environment, tracing the outline of her mother’s boyfriend’s tattoo (Figure 4), running her fingers across the smooth cold of bathroom tiles. One sequence is entirely comprised of Heidi’s hungry hands. As Heidi explores the hidden corners of the Siesta Inn where she is lodging, she is shown in montage running her hands over objects and surfaces, running her fingers over photographs, ornaments, papers and clothes.

Figure 4: Tattoo Somersault (2004)

If one was to count the number of instances that the camera draws attention to Heidi’s hands, it becomes almost innumerable. The first signposting of Heidi’s tactile approach to the world again come early in the piece, enforcing an intimacy with her if only through persistence: as Heidi enters her neighbourhood pub to retrieve her mother she immediately picks up a drink coaster, turning it over in her hands before placing it in her pocket. When greeting her mother she touches her necklace. Later as she sits next to her mother’s boyfriend on his bed she traces the outline of a tattoo on his chest.

Each of these instances nestled between moments of narrative action, and like Ozu’s pillow shot, the visceral primacy of these shots provide at once a welcome departure from narrative action (serving their own purpose, whatever one would like that to be), as well as implicitly binding the viewer to Heidi with incessant calls to the body, that is of Heidi’s body but also our own bodies as they react in a visceral recognition. That our own fingers can know warm skin, can feel the resistance of a piano key, of a lover’s hand, provides the potential for embodied identification, simultaneously allowing for a momentary suspension of narrative logic, or discursive meaning making, reminding that, as Sobchack remarks:

…we are in some carnal modality able to touch and be touched by the substance and texture of images; to feel a visual atmosphere envelop us; to experience weight and suffocation and the need for air; to take flight in kinetic exhilaration and freedom even as we are relatively bound to our theater seats; to be knocked backward by a sound; to sometimes even smell and taste the world we see on the screen (Sobchack 2000: 65).

We are to feel through our own fingers as Heidi runs her fingertips across the rough glitter stuck onto an old birthday card (Figure 5); we are to be sensitive to the embodied reverberations, the knowingness of tender pain as Heidi traces and presses into a fresh bruise upon her thigh. It is imposed upon us formally so that it is not long until Heidi’s body can come to speak to us as our own bodies speak to us – of hunger, pleasure, pain, exhilaration, nausea, anxiety.

Figure 5: Glitter Somersault (2004)

What I am arguing is that Somersault promotes a reflexivity between Heidi’s journey of learning and of meaning making via her own touch, her own skin, through the film’s formal construction of her experiences ­– that is, experiences of those “tactile, kinetic, redolent, and…taste-full” (Sobchack 2000: 54) kinds that we self-consciously and hungrily absorb and drink in as a curious, newly sexed teenager such as Heidi; and our own concurrent journey experienced through the embodied response to the film, our skin touching that of the film’s, that of Heidi’s.

Visceral shock

We are not left long in Somersault before being reminded that this is a film largely concerned with sex, and Heidi’s experience of it, as a number of those visceral instances attest. And so, instead of offering a narrative engagement with the subject of sexuality and Heidi’s (un)femininity (and to a lesser extent, Joe’s (un)masculinity), the film seems to “enact [sexuality] at the level of affective transmission” – along the lines of what Ann Cvetkovich calls “the representation of social problems as affective dilemmas” (1992: 2). Had those instances of tactile/visceral experience not been so persistent, so disruptive, it would be quite easy to read this film within certain discursive or ideological pedagogies, such as those of femininity, adolescent sexuality, and broader gender binaries. And yet this is systematically interrupted by those provocations of embodied response, and most emphatically with moments of visceral shock.

Familiar with mainstream cinema’s standardized formats, we have become used to thinking of and enjoying feature films first and foremost in terms of plot and characters, identification and narrative logic (Beugnet 2007: 5).

This familiarity has come to dictate much film analysis, not least in those films considered social realist. Those visceral, affective moments within film are “commonly construed as detrimental to the viewer’s interpretative or analytical appraisal of what is being presented to him or her” (Beugnet 2007: 39). However, in films such as Somersault that do privilege those affective moments over narrative logic or explicit social politics, it is worthwhile considering how those moments can, and do, relate to the more implicit social and political concerns. Thusly, Somersault can certainly be read as engaging in sexual politics, both within the wider narrative and within its formal elements if they are read as equal and not oppositional. If Somersault can be read as utilising well-known gender binaries (Heidi as feminine, Joe as masculine), then interruptions of said binaries through explicitly affective, sensory experiences does not remove the sexual politics of the film, to the contrary, it actively challenges those said binaries in the very act of the interruption. The visceral shock referred to here is this very aesthetic interruption. The use here of the term visceral shock is a reapporopriation of Sobchack’s use of “immediate tactile shock” (2000), arousing a sensation of one’s own body being touched, in conjuncture with the character being touched as well as the character who touches. Situated within the phenomenological sense, this connotes a preconscious relationship with the film, a proprioceptive juncture between skin of the self and skin of the film – what Marks’ explores as haptic cinema (2000; 2002).

One scene in particular illustrates the disruptive power of visceral shock: the sequence involves the film’s two primary protagonists, Heidi and Joe, on their first “real” date, upon which they head out for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. Following an unpleasant encounter with old mates, Joe is visibly irritable, snatching his hand away from Heidi’s as they enter the restaurant, snapping at the waitress when asking for a bowl of fresh chilies, muttering aggressively under his breath as Heidi hesitates upon ordering. Clearly anxious as to Joe’s turned mood, Heidi begins to question him, “Am I your girlfriend?” and “Do you love me?” receiving short and exacerbated responses from Joe, “Jeezus Heidi” and “I don’t know, we only just met”. Joe finally reacts quite aggressively, “I just don’t like being fucking intimidated,” he rasps.

Up until this point, the narrative has consistently drawn upon a well-worked literacy of meaning, most obviously the normative gender binaries of the masculine and feminine. Heidi is shown trying to hold Joe’s hand, she whinges and mollycoddles, anxiously nagging at Joe as to the status of their relationship, pushing for commitment. Conversely, Joe pulls away, remaining stoic, non-committal and brash. It seems as though the film has reached its diegetic straps, neatly referring to binary constructs: the needy feminine and the gruff masculine. This is well-worn territory, an exhausted language with which to speak of (hetero)sexual relations, and traditionally we could expect, in a film utilising a questioning, challenging social realist lens as here, that dialogue between Heidi and Joe might continue in order to (re)address/redress this.

However, rather than continuing the conversation, both the literal conversation between Joe and Heidi and also the discursive one predicated on feminine/masculine binaries, Heidi picks up the bowl of fresh chilies and throws them back into her mouth (Figure 6). We again move closer to Heidi’s face as her eyes turn bloodshot, her face trembling, and despite Joe’s hushed and angry tones that she spit them out, Heidi swallows in a moment of Cronenberg-esque transportation to the body.

Figure 6: Chillies Somersault (2004)

As we watch Heidi experiencing the heat of the fresh chilies hitting her senses not only is there an immediate “carnal identification with material subjectivity”, to use a Sobchack phrase, but it also interrupts those burgeoning engagements with social and discursive judgements – a “carnal subversion of fixed subject positions” (Sobchack 2004: 67), Heidi as feminine, Joe as masculine, and so forth. It is a literal shock, reminding us that engaging with film is not only seeing/hearing it, but also experiencing it.

The visceral shock as present in this scene acknowledges the immediacy of a moment that momentarily displaces intellect and interrupts the normative flow of narrative logic. In this instance, Joe and Heidi’s discussion from which a literacy of meaning, a series of discursive threads, was emerging. Had they been left to emerge, the potential for a much more literal binary reading of the text would have been greater than that of the affective surrendering insisted upon instead.

Brian Massumi refers to these kinds of affective response as “unformed and unstructured” (2002: 260), and thus remaining outside, or to the side of, conscious thought. When actively bridled to affective moments via instances of visceral shock, there is much to be explored in terms of the experience of film and the subsequent critical reading of it. To be taken away, if only momentarily, from ideological effect and meaning, we find that the power of affect is then the potential space that emerges once returned to cognition and critical engagement. There is an almost forced displacement of (critical) mind from (sensuous) body within this moment, and to quote Barthes, it is a “moment when my body pursues its own ideas – for my body does not have the same ideas that I do” (1975: 17).

The very break down of narrative logic via the enactment of visceral shock, the disavowal of a discursive causal chain (as with the masculine/feminine binary within Somersault) provides both affective resonance and the potential for renewed critical engagement. Shaviro writes:

I am urging that we surrender to and revel in cinematic fascination, rather than distance ourselves from it with the tools of psychoanalytic reserve and hermeneutic suspicion… film’s radical potential to subvert social hierarchies and decompose relations of power lies in its extreme capacity for seduction and violence (1993: 64).

There is a violence to Heidi’s abrupt intake of the chilies, her vomiting in the toilet, the water hitting her flushed skin, it skews any discursive logic into utter disarray – indeed, if any predictability was being seen to emerge, it is in that moment swiftly done away with and in its place a carnal transgression (Figure 7). It is not that those discourses of femininity are replaced, but that in the very interruption of its literacy a space emerges with which to engage with it anew.

Figure 7: Flushed Skin Somersault (2004)

Affect as social force

Referring to these immediate responses in cinematic viewing, Sobchack refers to a cinesthesia that foregrounds the “complexity and richness of the more general bodily experience that grounds our particular experience of cinema and both, as well, point ways in which the cinema uses our dominant sense of vision and hearing to speak comprehensibly to our other senses,” (2000). It is not enough to acknowledge that cinesthetic experience exists, but to attempt to understand how and where it sits within the myriad of experiences and readings that take place within a film. The violent arrest, the visceral shock, that throws the senses into an uneasy sensorial identification with Heidi moves us closer to her, and simultaneously away from her as only a symbolic, or signifying, body, thus the Heidi that exists as an (un)feminine subject is, if only momentarily, undone.

As a film that purposively foregrounds the affective elements that sit to the side of forward narrative momentum, Somersault actively asks for meaning to be found in less obvious places. Heidi is at once a feminine body as well as a sensate body; the discursive logic attached to the former is seen here to be momentarily skewed by the latter through the affective power of visceral shock. These affective moments allow for transgressive possibilities to emerge, as what is known – in this instance those discursive attributes of (un)femininity – are brought undone, ruptured in a moment of embodied arrest. This affective power, then, is indeed critical power. The carnal subversions (Sobchack 2004) of discursive logic made possible through those affective moments, such as found within Somersault, elucidate affect in film as more than mere emotional filler, but also a potentially powerful critical and social force.


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Image Credits

Somersault, directed by Cate Shortland, Film Finance Corporation Australia, 2004. DVD Hopscotch Entertainment (Australia, 2004).