Jane Campion’s final student film made at the Australian Film & Television School (now called the Australian Film, Television and Radio School), A Girl’s Own Story offers a lyrical exploration of three young girls on the brink of womanhood in a ‘60s Australia in a state of cultural flux. Ideas explored here – including the inherent violence of sexuality; dysfunctional relationships and the interplay between amorous desire and more conservative social norms – are recurrent themes found in much of Campion’s oeuvre.1 Much like Campion’s An Angel at my Table (1990), The Piano (1993), and Bright Star (2009), the film presents a period piece that explores the inequity of the differing expectations placed on both genders at the time of their respective settings.

A Girl’s Own Story follows Pam (Gabrielle Shornegg), Stella (Geraldine Haywood) and Gloria (Marina Knight) – three friends who attend a Catholic Girl’s school in Sydney’s inner west. Largely eschewing chronological storytelling, Campion here favours a more visceral and fragmentary approach, uniting her characters around the theme of bourgeoning female sexuality. The film’s first act stands as a searing examination of a sexuality moderated through the pop culture imagery of the time. The film opens with a shot of the three girls ogling an anatomical diagram of an erect penis, under which the warning “this sight may shock young girls” is inscribed. Here, Campion expresses the mixed messages sent to young girls around their own sexualities. Such textbooks, ubiquitous during the period, were more likely to shock than educate as intended, proliferating fear and confusion over understanding in a culture that prefaced abstinence above enlightenment.

Campion next cuts to the girls performing The Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better” in front of a swarm of their screaming classmates; re-enacting the Beatlemania craze of the time before being reprimanded by a stony-faced nun. Later, Stella and Pam practice kissing, wearing cutout masks of their idols, Paul and Ringo. The camera scans across the bedroom and we see an assortment of Barbie dolls, clothesless and configured in sexually provocative poses, lining the bottom of the frame. The girls’ somber seminarian experience, founded on the ‘word-of-the-father’ and the admonition “thou shalt not,” is starkly contrasted with the this rather innocent exploration of their adult-like impulses.2  On the surface playing the Fab Four and exploring the anatomy of dolls represents a relatively normative gateway into sexual understanding. However, an examination of the song’s lyrics “I should have know better with a girl like you… if this is love you’ve got to give me more” and Barbie’s implicit coda of physical perfection also come to express for Campion examples of society’s privileging of patriarchal demands.

This is further explored by the film’s strong motif of disconnection. Early on, the girls’ bodies are depicted as largely disjointed. Close-ups of their faces are contrasted with shots of legs and feet, the human body rarely presented as a unified whole. From the disembodied screams over the film’s title card, to the discombobulated heads of the Beatles on plastered on Pam’s wall, cinematographer Sally Bongers (who would also shoot Campion’s Sweetie (1989)) reinforces a very clear severance between the conflicting intellectual and physical/experiential expressions of desire that characterise adolescent sexuality. A similar disconnect is also reflected in the relationship of Pam’s parents who having not spoken directly for over two years, use her as a conduit for all communication. Pam’s family radiates repression and as a result, each member inhabits their own private world. We learn that her father (Paul Chubb) is having an affair with a colleague Deidre (Jane Edwards), one that he callously implicates his own daughter in. He is a predatory figure: an adulterer who outwardly flirts with schoolgirl Stella and whose every attempt to communicate with his wife is undercut with lascivious sexual innuendo. After a fight that starts out as physically abusive, Pam’s parents make love in their hallway, again reinforcing a perceived fissure between romantic love and impetuous sexuality.

Throughout the film, Pam’s inability to reconcile the toxic sexuality her parents demonstrate is cleverly represented by Campion’s depiction of feet. From the leather boots she steals from her older sister to the high-heels she wears to dinner with her father and Deidre, whose unsteady clicking indicates her displacement in this very adult environment, Campion utilises footwear to reflect Pam’s transition into a world she does not yet belong. Later, Campion also shows Pam at home, doing homework on the floor, legs crossed in the air, her feet adorned by the white, frilly socks one would associate with a young girl – the picture of innocence and domestic comfort – that is quickly dashed by a phone call from Deidre. Simply put, the sexuality modeled to Pam is one that is violent, invasive and that cannot simply be walked away from.

Coldness, another motif that runs throughout the film is closely linked with the character of Gloria. After finding a kitten, she wants to play ‘cats’ with her brother Graeme (John Godden), both an in-part innocent and yet overtly sexual provocation. Another predatory figure, Graeme encourages Gloria to take her clothes off under the guise of a more authentic re-enactment (cats, after all, don’t wear clothes). Asking him to turn on the heater, Gloria agrees and the two have passionless sex that results in her pregnancy. Later, when Graeme visits her at a house for unwed mothers, Gloria remarks that she’s constantly cold as they don’t have heaters. Here, we see the consequence of transgression from innocence to adulthood both figuratively and literally leaving Gloria alone and out in the cold.

Bookended by musical performances, the film concludes with the girls singing an ethereal ballad, “I Feel The Cold” (written by Alex Proyas, director of both The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998)). As the trio sings, images of ice-skaters are projected over their bodies. Their faces sullen and desolate, they wave their hands in front of a space heater, the device tragically unable to provide them with the type of loving warmth they all desperately crave. At one point, the choral refrain subsides and we see an older man’s hand caress Pam’s body as she solemnly asks “Will I melt away?” In this moment, Campion 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.3 With this scene, Campion also perfectly encapsulates the isolating, confusing and ultimately frightening mood around adolescent, female sexuality in pre-feminist Australian suburbia of the ‘60s.

 

A Girl’s Own Story (1986, Australia, 27 mins)

Prod: Patricia L’Huede Dir: Jane Campion Scr:  Jane Campion Phot: Sally Bongers Ed: Chris Lancaster Art Des: Maria Fesso, Susan Pullen Mus: Alex Proyas

Cast: Gabrielle Shornegg, Geraldine Haywood, Marina Knight, John Godden and Paul Chubb

 

Endnotes

  1. Kate Matthews, “Curator’s Notes: A Girl’s Own Story”, Australian Screen Online, https://aso.gov.au/titles/shorts/a-girls-own-story/notes/
  2. Jocelyn Robson and Beverley Zalcock, “Girls’ Own Stories: Australian and New Zealand Women’s Films,” http://www.filmsocietywellington.net.nz/db/screeningdetail.php?id=189&sr=1
  3. Anton De Ionno, “A Girl’s Own Story,” Senses of Cinema 55 (July 2010), http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/key-moments-in-australian-cinema-issue-70-march-2014/a-girls-own-story-jane-campion-1984/

About The Author

Nathan Senn is a Melbourne-based arts and film writer. He is Head of Programming at both the Sydney Underground Film Festival (SUFF) and the Environmental Film Festival Australia (EFFA) and regularly contributes to programs for MIFF and Sydney Film Festival.