Three separate characters are seen running furiously along Sydney streets: Bobby (Teo Gebert), Tia (Olivia Pigeot) and Phaedra (Susan Prior). It is immediately clear that they are desperate, fleeing their problems. It is a simple, economical but strong start to Paul Middleditch's A Cold Summer, one of the best and bravest Australian films in recent years.
The chance meetings of these three characters in two pairs – Tia and Bobby (strangers to each other), Tia and Phaedra (former schoolmates) – will lead to a chaotic round of binge drinking and sexual liaisons, but above all a stream of agonised talk. Confession, bluff, power games, projections – all will be spilled.
Yet the truth of these characters is not so quickly or easily revealed. This is the sort of psychodrama in which people, as they seem to be revealing their inner selves relentlessly, are in fact forever evading, fantasising, lying. Ultimately, a central theme unites these three wayward souls: they are all dealing with an intimate loss.
The actors were key creative collaborators in the adventure of this film, and they certainly give their all. Gebert made a splash some years back in the short feature Square One (1997), and here he at last finds another role worthy of his brooding intensity. Pigeot and Prior have something extra to work with: a sense that they incarnate two female types that are superficially different in so many ways, but also share a common bond of pain and longing.
Comparisons will be routinely made between A Cold Summer and filmmaking groups like the Dogme brotherhood in Denmark or InDigEnt in America. The film has that same air of semi-improvisation, spontaneity, emotional immediacy. Naturally, it comes with a heroic backstory typical of independent filmmaking: Middleditch (whose previous, more conventional feature Terra Nova  made little impression) shot the film quickly and cheaply in a couple of weeks.
And yet A Cold Summer benefits from decisions that set it apart from those other current movements. Firstly, it is handsomely shot in 35 millimetre, not eye-straining digital. Secondly, it does not go overboard with you-are-there, handheld camera acrobatics. Thirdly, it knows when to slow down and prepare for key dramatic effects, like the astonishing moment when Booby suddenly punches a workmate.
Middleditch's influences seem to run further back, to '70s American cinema. He claims not to have known John Cassavetes' movies very well before embarking on this project, but the pointed presence of the standard "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", which recurs constantly in Cassavetes' films, might suggest otherwise. And there is more than a touch of Husbands (1970) in Bobby's tormented flight from home and family.
The spirit of Robert Altman is even more evident. As in a film such as Short Cuts (1993), these seething, reckless yet privately troubled characters are often caught with their masks slipping. Their memories and stories don't add up to a coherent personality, and they are forever on the brink of humiliating themselves in public, such as in the scenes where Tia sings a song on stage or Phaedra delivers a poem to a guy that she fancies.
Or perhaps we can see a trace of modern French cinema, angry, post-New Wave films like Savage Nights (1992), in Middleditch's predilection for leaving his characters stranded out in the street, at bus stops, trailing through parks, or placing them in ephemeral settings like cars and bars.
Such cinephilic influences, as salutary as they are in the barren context of Australian filmmaking, would matter little if the film did not possess its own force and inspiration. But A Cold Summer, a modest experiment that has taken some time to find a local distributor, works powerfully as a three-hander, and offers a vision of middle-class angst that is far more compelling than Lantana (2001).
© Adrian Martin March 2004