Jane Campion has been a dominant force in world cinema for nearly two decades. Shot delicately in black-and-white, A Girl’s Own Story is an early short film that traces the stories of three suburban teenage girls (Pam, Gloria and Stella) in 1960’s Australia. It deals with the difficulties of burgeoning sexuality, incest, friendship and family against the backdrop of Beatlemania and an era that valued the isolating notions of purity and wholesomeness over honesty and acceptance.
The film progresses through a collection of events – some humorous and sweet, others troubling and complex – which culminate in the final sequence, an expressionistic musical number in which our protagonist Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg) is joined by Gloria (Marina Knight) and Stella (Geraldine Haywood) to perform a haunting song entitled “I Feel the Cold”. The motif of “cold” runs through the entire film, with recurring references to heaters as a way for Campion to play gently with the subtext that she explores in this final sequence.
The sequence begins with Pam ascending the staircase in her house, escaping the distressing behaviour of her parents below, who are absorbed in a lustful embrace following a heated argument. When Pam reaches the top of the stairs, she stands in a doorway, dressed in a loose white nightgown that billows in an unheard wind. She begins to sing the refrain “I feel the cold” while images of ice-skating are projected over her body. She is joined by Gloria and Stella, dressed in white singlets, all three girls standing in ominous darkness while they sing. The sequence continues with images of each girl eerily waving her hands in front of an offscreen heater, their eyes sad and lost. At one point, the choral refrain subsides whilst Pam performs (in voice-over) a spoken word interlude. In a hushed voice, she asks “Will I melt away?”. As Pam’s spoken words are uttered, we are presented with shots of a man’s hand running along Pam’s arms and legs inter-cut with tight close-ups of Pam’s face, wary and frightened, as her voice-over continues: “It feels cold, this warmth.” These images, together with Pam’s voice-over, stitch together the conceptual fabric of young female sexuality and Pam’s carnal fears that underpin this haunting moment. The sequence concludes with the girls seated next to small heaters on a tiled floor, while the final lyric (“I want melt away”) is repeated ominously.
In this evocative sequence, Campion explores (so beautifully) new ways in which to express her characters’ fears and isolation. This moment hints towards ideas and styles Campion will later develop and explore, like the graceful femininity of the ice-skating she revisits in In the Cut (2003) or the emotional isolation of women and the historical perspective she utilises in An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993) and The Portrait of a Lady (1996). In this moment, Campion also finds one of her earliest platforms for experimenting with expressionistic conventions of cinema like the chiaroscuro-style lighting of Ingmar Bergman, the inky suburban subconscious of David Lynch and Peter Weir’s haunting images of lost girls.
Campion’s body of work is characterised by audacious honesty and creative integrity. In the intimate sexuality, recurring motifs and embedded humour, tenderness and pathos of the closing sequence of A Girl’s Own Story, the viewer is touched by an exquisite moment that is the mark of a visually profound auteur.