In gymnastics, a somersault is a 360° flip in the air or – when done on the ground – a roll. The starting position resembles the final; however, because of the distance made from the point A to the point B finish is never start. Or to paraphrase Heraclius: “No woman ever steps on the same ground twice, for it’s not the same ground and she’s not the same woman.” In Somersault (2004), a film written and directed by an Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, the teenage protagonist Heidi does a geographic somersault – she runs away from home after fallout with her mother but eventually returns. Yet it’s not her escape that I’m interested in, but the unconventional use of the one woman’s touch as an essential tool to perceive and bond with the world.
The postmodern, Western culture is an ocular-centric or even somatophobic one: we observe the world around us and therefore, necessarily (or deliberately) distant ourselves from others to get a more “objective” view of it. As much as we watch others, others watch us back. Some social groups are more conditioned to be watched (e.g. women, PoC, LGBT+, refugees, animals, disabled persons), while others have the privilege of an uninterrupted and entitled goggling (i.e. members of hegemonic masculinity with their male gaze). Sight creates distance or space between people, but touch nullifies that because it establishes a physical meeting (“meating”) between two subjects, or a person and an object; one can feel the texture of things or the warmth of the other person’s skin. The sensory impression replaces the “rational” one.
Eyesight has the top position on how we learn about the world around us; it is the “civilised” method unlike touch that is regarded as less credible or unruly sense. Touch is more egalitarian than sight since the one who is touching is also being touched back. The act itself triggers so called skin-ego, where skin as the protective surface marks our physical boundary with the outside. With touch we transgress boundaries of ourselves, of our bodies. Touching also implies intimate cosiness (e.g. children, mother-child, lovers, close friends, family) and therefore must be cultivated – whom, what, where, how and when it is appropriate to touch.
To Somersault’s lead, a 16-years-old Heidi (wonderfully portrayed by Abbie Cornish), touch represents her hidden modus operandi; she is a haptic person. By caressing things and people, she is establishing communication and connection with the world. When touching other people is being done by a young and beautiful girl, men easily frame and shame those acts as sexual. However, the ultimate manifestation of touch is the sexual act so Heidi engages a lot in casual sex. More sexist or patriarchal viewers would label her as “slut”, focusing on her “angelic looks” or “sexual magnetism”, but all this reduces her haptic sexual agency to being a sexual prop for male consumption which is not the case in Somersault. Those descriptions just signal an inept stereotyping of women’s sexuality and sensuality.
Director Cate Shortland generously reveals Heidi’s haptic character by largely focusing on her hands – what they do, whom they touch. Heidi’s desire to touch is a feminist tactic that subverts the male gaze, a man’s social entitlement in an ocular-oriented culture to look at Others without being looked back. Men may eye her as an object, but her reaction is to touch them. And objects don’t react so now they are transformed into equal subjects of touching. But there is another aspect of subverting the gender of a person who touches. Along with the privilege of male gaze, men also exhibit the behaviour called “mantouching” which allows men of certain age, social class and power to touch others without any consequences. In her own gentle way, Heidi is changing that paradigm not to subordinate others but perhaps to destigmatise touch as a secondary sense.
Taking pleasure in touching can also be a proof that Heidi might be ASMR; she is soft-spoken, her caressing of things and people gives her satisfaction, she enjoys being undressed by someone else or being non-sexually touched, and she revels in personal attention from sexually ambiguous Joe (Sam Worthington) when he slowly washes her face. Regardless of the current cultural snub about ASMR (“does it exist or not?”) if any sensual activity gives women major enjoyment…
Somersault also excels visually with the blurry, dreamlike cinematography by Robert Humphreys and subtle soundtrack by Decoder Ring. It is a mesmerizing piece of cinema that celebrates Other types of senses.<<< Back