When Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland was announced as the director of Black Widow – marking the first solo outing of Scarlett Johansson’s arse-kicking hero, and the first MCU movie to be entirely directed by a woman – the country’s film lovers felt a tinge of national pride.
Some celebrated by downing a few brewskies, while the less cinematically au fait quietly wondered: who is Cate Shortland? If you’re one of the latter, you’ve come to the right place. This article will bring you up to spend with the 52-year-old NSW native’s filmic oeuvre – a dramatically rich and interesting body consisting mostly of female-led productions, with nary a laser beam, explosion or beefy, jewel-collecting villain in sight.
In a New York Times op-ed published in 2019, Martin Scorsese famously argued that Marvel movies aren’t cinema, comparing them instead to theme parks – with actors “doing the best they can under the circumstances”. Will Shortland be able to buck the trend and direct an MCU film that – like the rest of her work – can be regarded as a work of art, while also delivering the carnage and, spectacle which audiences have come to expect?
Actor Florence Pugh – who plays Yelena Belova, a sister-figure to Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow – thinks so. She’s on the payroll, so it’s hardly surprising that she’s talking up the film, and her comments made in an interview with Total Film are nevertheless intriguing: “One of the most interesting things about the film is how far Cate went with it. This film is about the abuse of women. It’s about how they get involuntary hysterectomies by the age of eight. It’s about girls who are stolen from around the world. It’s so painful, and it’s so important.”
So what can we expect from a Shortland-directed Black Widow? And what can we hope for based on her work so far? Let’s unpack this ahead of the film’s release on July 8 by exploring two core elements, one stylistic and the other thematic, that run across her work.
Bold use of colour: from tranquil ponds to visual caffeine
In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry, Kramer and the gang famously reflected on seeing a fictitious film called Rochelle Rochelle, billed as “a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk”. Shortland’s excellent 2004 debut feature Somersault is the kind of work the show was lampooning: an arty drama, with splashes of erotica, about a person taking to the road to try and find themselves.
The director establishes an elegant but striking visual style from the get-go. An introductory scene captures the protagonist taking clothes off a washing line, the frame drenched in a rich, deep blue. This feels more like colour bathing than colour grading.
Bold use of colour is evident throughout Shortland’s films and has been widely acknowledged by critics as a distinguishing feature of her work. One tracking shot in her 2006 made-for-TV whodunit The Silence captures a carriage illuminated in blue. In the second half of Shortland’s 2017 psycho-sexual thriller Berlin Syndrome, the colour becomes increasingly prevalent as its protagonist Clare (Teresa Palmer) grows accustomed to being imprisoned in the apartment home of an abusive German man (Max Riemelt).
Blue – to quote Patti Bellantoni’s excellent book about colour, If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die – is a “quiet and aloof” colour that “can be a tranquil pond or a soft blanket of sadness”. Words like “tranquil pond” and “soft blanket of sadness” do not exactly scream “Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
But the Black Widow trailer does contain some evidence suggesting Shortland has found a way to put her colourful stamp on the film. There are glimpses of a confrontation on a bridge, the scene’s colour tone set by the glow of intense yellow light. This reminded me of an early moment in Shortland’s 2012 WWII drama Lore, in which a German man is burning documents, the scene’s aesthetic tone set by the yellowy-orange glow of the fire.
But most significantly, the trailer makes reference to the “Red Room”, a top-secret Soviet brainwashing facility in which women are manipulated and turned into deadly assassins; this is where Black Widow herself was trained in her pre-hero days.
Bellantoni describes red in terms more befitting of an MCU movie, calling it “visual caffeine” that “can activate your libido, or make you aggressive, anxious, or compulsive”. That raises the distinct possibility of Shortland continuing her knack for striking use of colour and the film delivering spectacular action. It is difficult, almost unheard of for auteurs to keep their style when messing around in the MCU playground; Taika Waititi came the closest by retaining some of his humour and lightness of touch in Thor: Ragnarok.
Strong female characters struggling against the patriarchy
The existence of a Russian-operated facility that transforms women into brainwashed killers for the state has obvious political associations, stemming from Cold War animosity and an artistic desire to visually represent the evils of the Kremlin. In the current day and age, however, the Red Room is more potent as an expression of the ongoing oppression of women and the myriad forms this assumes – from barefaced violence to more insidious forms of abuse such as coercive control.
In Somersault, Heidi is mistreated by men throughout, often in ways that are unethical or borderline unethical, but not criminal. At one point the film contemplates the issue of consent, showing her drunk and stoned and in the company of two men who begin to take advantage of her before they are caught in the act.
Set in Germany immediately after the end of World War II, Lore doesn’t deal directly with the patriarchy but has a strong feminist message, following Hannelore “Lore” Dressler (Saskia Rosendahl) – the daughter of Nazis – as she journeys across the country with her siblings in tow. This journey involves her rebelling against her upbringing and heritage. As critic Sarah Ward put it, Lore “was brought up believing in Nazi ideology, but her survival soon depends on discarding everything she knows”.
Shortland’s most striking example of a strong female character fighting to free herself from the oppressive clutches of a man is in Berlin Syndrome, which is led by a steely and captivating performance from Teresa Palmer, portraying a foreigner in Germany who discovers herself in the aforementioned nightmarish situation. During her initial erotic encounter with the man who becomes her predator, she tries to keep the volume down, to which he responds “nobody can hear you” – a line that takes on different, shocking connotations later on.
These films are about women escaping: Heidi and Lore from their homes and Clare from a deranged criminal (the only other movie on Shortland’s CV, The Silence, has Richard Roxburgh investigating the case of a murdered woman). Again, although we can probably expect a rather more conventional narrative from Black Widow, the trailer does indicate the film to some extent will be about a woman escaping her past and freeing herself from the shackles of oppression. Paradoxically this involves, as Scarlett Johansson puts it, going “back to where it all started, so they never do that to anyone again”.
The job of confronting the past, for Black Widow, involves taking on a villain named Taskmaster (sounds like a Microsoft Windows programme) in addition to all the other professional undertakings mentioned on her LinkedIn profile, such as: falling or dangling in mid-air from various vertiginous positions, contorting her face into an expression that says “grim determination”, jumping in slow-mo while a spectacular explosion occurs behind her, and generally behaving like a bad arse.
Will Cate Shortland be able to make a film that embraces such bad arsery, but also fits neatly alongside her other work and makes her artistic imprint on the commercial juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It’s a tough trick to pull off – but not outside the realms of possibility.
Black Widow is out July 8