Cold Summer, A

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 06/16/03 12:12:44

"An exhilarating blast of fresh air"
5 stars (Awesome)

A Cold Summer represents an unusually personal collaboration between its director and cast.

Paul Middleditch, who directed 1998’s undeservedly little-seen Terra Nova, came up with the original concept and developed it with his three leads (who share the screenplay credit with him). The closing copyright notice declares that the story is “loosely based on the lives” of the actors.

They improvised scenes with ad-libbed dialogue, which Middleditch shot on digital video. He then transcribed the dialogue from these taped scenes and wrote the screenplay. A Cold Summer was shot, guerrilla-style, in six days at locations around Sydney. Cinematographer Steve Arnold filmed in natural light with a hand-held 35 mm camera. The actors contributed painful experiences from their own lives to make a cathartic, ultimately optimistic film about overcoming grief and re-forging human connection.

The film opens with three characters – two women and a man – running. Bobby (Teo Gebert) is a young and charismatically handsome advertising executive, with a gift of the gab. He meets Tia (Olivia Pigeot) after her bag has been stolen. She’s a jazz singer, with long raven-coloured hair, flashing eyes and an attractive smile. Later, Tia runs into the bubbly Phaedra (Susan Prior), a friend from childhood who now works in a florist shop. They haven’t seen each other for 5 years. Phaedra good-naturedly describes herself as “semi-artistic”. Besides arranging flowers, she writes poetry and composes songs.

Each of these characters has a flipside. Bobby lives in his BMW with a camellia in a pot, jabbers incessantly and seems intent on drinking himself to death. Tia is attracted to danger, volatile and a compulsive liar. Phaedra hasn’t recovered from the death of her only boyfriend from a heroin overdose four years ago; she’s depressive and, like Tia, crippled with low self esteem. A Cold Summer is an abrasive and up-close look at three damaged people. We eventually learn the nature and reasons for each character’s sense of loss; we watch them come together, fall apart and then slowly begin to get their lives on track again.

The actors deliver naked and vulnerable performances – A Cold Summer has a raw, emotional power that you rarely see on screen (accentuated by Arnold’s restless camerawork and the jump cut editing of Peter Whitmore). The hopeful ending is deeply affecting. Dan Wyllie, Marin Mimica and Paul Kelman each appear in only one scene but all leave a vivid impression. Despite its deeply personal origins, A Cold Summer never struck me as self-indulgent. Middleditch has used the DV workshop footage (none of which appears in the finished film) to focus every scene and excise any extraneous material. What is left is all that matters. An elegiac string quartet score, composed by Claire Jordan, provides the perfect accompaniment.

A couple of scenes had me squirming with embarrassment at the characters’ on-screen humiliation. A lesser director could easily have exploited the actors or their material. My only complaint about A Cold Summer is that everything I saw at the Festival later that day (two features and two shorts) seemed utterly trivial in comparison.

If the 50th Sydney Film Festival were a restaurant, A Cold Summer is a shot of vodka on an empty stomach.

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