Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Jane Campion's A Girl's Own Story (1984) is free to watch below.
In consecutive close-ups, the inscrutable faces of three girls appear briefly on screen, as we hear the tune from a music box. Cut to the page of a book with the illustration of a male body, headless but with an erect penis. The girls’ hands gather around the male figure. One finger starts gliding across the drawing, carefully following the anatomical lines. The camera moves, trailing the finger that ends up underlining a sentence at the bottom of the page: “This sight might shock young girls.” The music ceases, hysterical female screams take over. Superimposed onto the black background, in an overwrought, baroque typography, the film’s title appears.
This is the start of A Girl’s Own Story (1984), the fourth short directed by Jane Campion when she was a student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. The brief but powerful introduction signals concisely the fragile, liminal territory to be explored: a space between childhood and womanhood, between desire and repression, and between curiosity and trauma.
The fever of Beatlemania, the pervasive presence of Catholicism, a growing anxiety over sexuality accompanying its increasing manifestation in the public sphere: all those are important issues in A Girl’s Own Story. But rather than treating them as isolated social phenomena, Campion inscribes them in a narrative that foregrounds the coming-of-age female experience of her main characters: Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg), Gloria (Marina Knight), and Stella (Geraldine Haywood). The troubling and confusing sexual episodes lived by these teenagers are inextricably linked with the clashes and contradictions of an era torn apart between liberation and repression.
This way of mingling the general ethos, culture, and imaginary of a time and place (Australia in the 1960s) with a deeply personal and unique universe, already unmistakably Campionesque, is one of the most remarkable achievements of A Girl’s Own Story. Moreover, this achievement stands as a critical response to the power figures and structures that ostracize and compartmentalize the girls’ lives—at school, for instance, both the separation of sexes and of ages is heavily enforced—but also to the dominant culture that so often erases, disregards, or trivializes the female experience. In this sense, it’s important to note how Campion builds the film around two traumatic sex episodes, but decides not to show either of them directly. Instead, what we are given to see and feel are their antecedents and aftermath.
A Girl’s Own Story stands out for the concrete stylistic choices elaborated in each scene, but also owes much to an overall tone: passionless, desolate. This atmosphere is soaked in the experience of a world that is too small and gives too little, a world filled with boring rituals and sickening family dynamics. Costume, décor, and sound play an important role in the depiction of this milieu. Listening to the film attentively, one can appreciate that there are many details unifying its soundscape: music cues that are never gratuitous; voices coming from TV sets; animal, electrical, and human background noises. However, the main dialogue sounds raw, as if projected into a void space.
The découpage of the film is quite impressive, not for its grandeur but for its moment-to-moment inventiveness. Campion gradually sculpts the world around these teenagers, and slowly reveals the direction of movements and actions. In this sense, A Girl’s Own Story is an extremely dynamic work: things are never established at the outset, rather they become clearer only in the middle, as the shot or scene advances and transforms itself.
Let’s take, for instance, the sequence between Pam and Stella in the former’s room. It begins with a close-up of Pam as she crosses the screen obliquely. In the background we can see several cuts-outs filling a white wall, but we can’t see the pictures properly, because they are out of focus. Pam stops in front of a dark wall, kisses one of the faces, and turns her head toward the camera, beaming a big, innocent smile: “I love The Beatles!” In the next shot, the camera is behind Pam, allowing us to see a larger portion of the room. Stella appears in the foreground, advancing from the right to the left. She reaches the white wall and smooches a cut-out of George Harrison. The girls change walls as they keep performing their languorous kissing ritual. The third set-up gives us a view of the bed where Pam and Stella sit and chat. It’s only now that we understand where the scene is going: in turn, each girl will put a mask of the other’s favorite Beatle, and they’ll kiss. That revelation would have been enough for most filmmakers, but not for Campion. As the girls start “practicing for the future,” the camera glides slowly, making visible, in the foreground, a collection of Barbie dolls. The music-box version of the Doctor Zhivago theme “Somewhere, My Love” (a true leitmotif of the film) begins playing again.
In A Girl’s Own Story, the camera is always too close or too far away, suddenly passing from uncomfortably facing the characters, to detaching itself entirely. This creates a great deal of instability and disequilibrium. The strangeness and creepiness of the film comes from this interplay. In the dinner scene, for instance, an initial set-up gives us a view resembling that of a security camera: the characters sit at the table, occasionally blocking our vision when they pass before the lens. The conversation is relayed via frontal, close, one-shots. Occasionally, a group shot where we can see the whole table will be introduced, but never two characters sharing the shot as they speak.
If, at some point, a scene starts becoming predictable, Campion finds a way to introduce unexpected variations: a nuance, a moment of violence, a surprising set-up, an unforeseen apparition, or a shocking gesture. The domestic scene between Gloria and her brother Graeme (John Godden) contains several details of this type. At other times, these variations take the scene in a completely different, new direction. The most remarkable example of this happens near the end: the fight between Pam’s parents, followed by their reconciliation, triggers a traumatic response in the girl, sending her into a seemingly regressive state—thus completely changing the focus of the scene. Shots of Pam crawling the stairs like an anxious, panicked baby are intercut with close-ups of the parents’ bodies as they have sex. The ultimate shot, from above the stairs, shows us the two adult figures at the bottom, as if at the vortex of a spiral, or the centre of a keyhole.
The series of events portrayed in A Girl’s Own Story constitute a loose narrative, punctuated by the occasional use of Pam’s voice-over. But the film works better as a poetic piece, taking its force from the repetition of certain motifs that reappear across the story, weaving links between seemingly unconnected experiences and incidents. Poised at the exact crossroad between innocence and perversity, cats function as a lure in the two scenes preceding the sexual encounters. The kissing ritual in Pam’s room finds its bitter counterpoint in the kiss-less intercourse that will leave Gloria pregnant; afterwards, when she asks Graeme for a kiss, he’ll respond uncomfortably: “It’s not proper.” The shadow of religion in daily life is doubly emphasized by the two sets of nuns (who rule both the school and the home for girls), and by the crosses (an oversize one, hanging on the institution’s wall; and a tiny one, carried by Pam’s mother around her neck).
Another motif that features quite prominently in the film is the heater. Often filmed in lengthy close-ups, heaters appear in almost every single interior space. This motif comes full circle in the astounding final scene—a musical performance that can be considered the dark reverse-shot of the initial Beatles rendition. Pam, Gloria, and Stella, dressed in their nightgowns, sing a tune titled “I Feel the Cold”. Images of the girls, perfectly placed in a diagonal line, are intercut with individual close-ups. There’s a strong contrast between the black background and the white figures, over which images of female legs swirling on an ice skating ring are superimposed.
In the film’s final shot, the girls share a space surrealistically filled with dozens of radiators. Sitting on a chessboard-like floor, each one seems to occupy her own corner and inhabit her own, private drama. The camera tracks toward Pam, isolating her in the image, before the screen turns black. If, up until this point, the presence of heaters might have seemed incidental, here it becomes clear that the cold felt by the girls has less to do with climatic conditions than their emotional wounds—an expression of the permanent, frozen state induced by traumatic sexual experiences.
The music box plays at different points of the film, linking the girls’ sexual explorations with a not yet fully abandoned childhood. Similarly, the film’s obsession with feet and shoes also insists on this delicate frontier between infancy and adulthood. When Gloria’s brother visits her, he brings a pair of booties for the baby and parades them in his fingers, prompting her to exclaim: “They must have small feet.” A splendid cut takes us from the toc-toc of the heeled shoes that Pam wears on her birthday, to the socks she’s wearing at home. But the most important contrast happens between the black shoes that girls wear at school—usually displayed serially, as a means of standardization and a mark of early age—and the white boots that Pam steals from her older sister, a badge of womanhood and individuation, attesting to her desire to grow up.
The white boots reappear in the film’s most impressive and crucial scene. Little Pam (Katharine Cullen), dressed in a white raincoat and wearing these boots, walks across a dark street at night. A car follows her. The driver (whose identity will remain hidden) slows down and opens the door. Pam is about to run, but the man lures her with his white kitten, inviting her to jump into the vehicle. The whole scene is astonishingly constructed: through precise match-cuts, the figures of the younger and the older Pam alternate; the tracking movement of the camera is replaced with shots of the girl as reframed by the car’s window; the close-ups of the feet in white boots are intercut with shots where Pam, in her black uniformed shoes, is skipping rope in a schoolyard. The natural sounds of the scene are mixed with the ominous whispering of a nursery rhyme. A series of whipping noises (similar to what we will hear in the final musical performance) accompany the snake-like metamorphosis of the rope’s movements. The little girl jumps into the car, but it’s the older Pam who we see sitting in the back seat. The hand sheathed in a black glove, the one that was caressing the cat a moment earlier, pushes down the door’s security lock.
This scene is situated at the mid-point of the narrative, a wedge between the two parts of the film. Its hallucinatory atmosphere and placement in relation to the previous scene (where Pam is in bed) may make us, at first, hesitate about the status of this episode. Oscillating between past and present, between dream and reality, between memory and reconstruction, the ambiguity of this moment has much to do with the fact that childhood abuse is often repressed or not properly recognized by its victims. However, other events, as well as the messed-up relationship that Pam has with her parents, can surely shed some light on this incident. It’s quite telling, for instance, that while Pam’s father (Paul Chubb) is clearly unfaithful, the girl blames her mother (Colleen Fitzpatrick) for being cold and unstable. But, later, when the parents start embracing and kissing, Pam is horrified. Her ambivalent relation to pleasure is linked to a sense of lack and betrayal, but also to a sense of guilt disguised as anger against the mother figure.
During the final musical performance, the early episode of abuse is evoked again: the hand of a man runs over Pam’s body, caressing her skin. And a sentence uttered by her during a spoken interlude resonates with all the contradictions portrayed by the film: “It feels so cold, this warmth.”