Friday, June 15, 2012

Favorite Films #9: Morvern Callar

This is Dedicated to the One I Love…

A woman finds her boyfriend dead as she lies next to his body as Christmas lights start blinking around. Yet, the camera is more interested in this woman rather than this man who is now dead. Who is Morvern Callar and why does she decide to go on this adventure where she takes her boyfriend’s manuscript under her name? That is what Lynne Ramsay is trying to figure out in her second feature film based on Alan Warner’s 1995 novel called Morvern Callar. While it’s a film that could be about a woman’s grief taking her in this long-lost adventure with no sense of direction. It’s also a film where Ramsay follows this extraordinary woman who is trying to find herself through loss as she tries to figure out who she is.

Death is nothing new to the works of Lynne Ramsay where by the early 2000s, she was already becoming one of the most unique filmmakers of her generation. She began her career in the mid-1990s with a trio of shorts that each explored different ideas of loss that often centered around children in shorts like Small Deaths and Gasman. Those two shorts would play part into Ramsay’s first feature film in 1999’s Ratcatcher that followed a boy dealing with the death of another boy that he feels responsible for set in early 1970s Scotland. The film would reveal Ramsay’s talents as a filmmaker for finding beauty in something as ugly as a garbage strike set in 1973 Scotland where everything looked dreary.

If the trio of shorts and Ratcatcher were films that showed what Ramsay was able to do with exploring the idea of loss. Morvern Callar would up the ante even further in Ramsay’s fascination with death by following this young woman who is probably more lost in her grief than James Gillespie in Ratcatcher. Largely because the film opens with Morvern finding her boyfriend (who is also named James Gillespie) dead on the floor from a suicide as she has no idea how to cope with this or the instructions he’s given her in his suicide note. What she does is go to the train station to process the news, answer a phone call, and then return home to open her Christmas presents in the form of a leather jacket, a lighter, a cassette mix-tape, and cassette walkman.

Driving the film to help Ramsay explore this character’s grief is Samantha Morton who plays the titular character. Prior to this film, Morton was just an actress on the rise who had gained international attention for her work as a mute in Woody Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown. The performance would give her an Oscar nomination as she was appearing in numerous project ranging from indies like Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son, art house fare like Jim Sheridan’s family drama In America, and big mainstream blockbusters for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report with Tom Cruise.

While those films and the other projects she would do following Morvern Callar would confirm Morton as one of the best actresses of the 2000s. Her performance as Morvern Callar is the film that would finally confirm Morton as an actress who is willing to go far into playing characters most actresses wouldn’t play. There’s a risk to playing a character who is seemingly unlikable for her actions but also for the way she tries to channel her grief through doing things that brings more questions than answers to an audience. Especially a character who is quite aloof in her actions and why she seems to be running away from the fact that her boyfriend just killed himself.

Ramsay and co-screenwriter Liana Dognini chose to create a film where if one was to create a conventional story about grief. There would be a lot of melodramatic plot devices where the protagonist would cry a lot and such. Do things that seems over the top and give out answers. That is not what Ramsay does where if she and Dognini (who died in the mid-2000s) were able to create Ramsay’s version of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones if it wasn’t for Steven Spielberg to be involved for Peter Jackson to make his 2008 film version of the film that turned out to be absolute dog shit.

Instead, Ramsay and Dognini create a script where it’s not about plot devices but rather a character who could be in a state of grief and has no idea what she’s doing as she’s just this ordinary woman who works at a supermarket. She goes out to parties with her best friend Lanna, played wonderfully by then-newcomer Kathleen McDermott, who would join her on this trip to Spain where things eventually go crazy. Though Lanna might not be as developed as Morvern as a character as all she likes to do is go out and have fun. She is the one person who is trying to understand what is up with Morvern who remains lost through all of these parties and things that is happening around her.

Ramsay refuses to give answers into why Morvern is acting this way because even Morvern herself is clueless to her actions. She is probably processing everything she is dealing with while unsure about what to do. Even as she has to work at the supermarket with Lanna and then do things that a lot of people do while there’s also time to go out to a pub, have some beers, go to a club, and party. For Morvern, it doesn’t seem enough as she is still trying to sort things out where she would eventually rid of her boyfriend by cutting up his dead body and bury it somewhere in a field as if she was to erase him for good.

Still, it wouldn’t be enough as she would delve into her uncontrolled behavior where she is lost as guiding her in this lost journey is the mix-tape her boyfriend made. Compiled by Maggie Bazin and Andrew Cannon, the soundtrack is a wide mix of music ranging from country, ambient, dub reggae, alternative rock, post-rock, and pop that plays up to Morvern’s dizzying state of mind. Whether’s it’s the use of music by Can and Aphex Twin at the New Year’s party scene to capture the craziness of the party where Morvern would flash a passing sea merchant or the off-kilter insanity of scenes of Almeria, Spain with all of this percussion-driven music that is part of the rave culture. 

One notable moment of Ramsay’s brilliance in mixing offbeat music in a gruesome scene is where a half-naked Morvern chops up her boyfriend’s body with an outtake of the Velvet Underground’s I’m Sticking With You playing in the background as she’s listening to the song. One of the film’s most memorable moments is where Ramsay’s camera slowly plays to the rhythm of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s Some Velvet Morning as Morvern is listening to the song as she walks around the supermarket.

It is among one of Ramsay’s gifts as a filmmaker for the way she can meld music with images in a very understated fashion. Not a lot needed to be told in a scene like that as the music also doesn’t have to say anything. It’s that kind of unconventional approach to storytelling that makes Ramsay so revered by many as she was considered one of the 40 best working filmmakers by the Guardian in 2007. Yet, it would be four more years where Ramsay would ultimately return with her chilling adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin that was hailed as a comeback. 

 If there’s one contemporary filmmaker Ramsay seems to have similarities with in terms of minimalist filmmaking, writing unconventional stories, create entrancing images, and can use music to capture the mood of a scene. It would in American filmmaker Sofia Coppola. Though both come from very different backgrounds as well as the fact that Coppola is a third-generation filmmaker. Coppola and Ramsay seem to have the same idea about how to tell a story through images rather than lots of dialogue or any kind of exposition that sets them apart from other filmmakers including more well-known Hollywood female filmmakers like a Nora Ephron or a Nancy Meyers. 

What sets Ramsay apart from Coppola and her other female contemporaries is that she is willing to go the extra mile to explore death at its ugliest form and is not afraid to make the images seem un-pretty thanks in part to the grimy camera work of her cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler. Another attribute of what would Ramsay apart from other female contemporaries of her time are the cinematic influences she has like Britain’s Ken Loach where both seem to aim for realism in their work. The kind of work Ramsay would do in her first two films and shorts would pave the way for new filmmakers to arrive like Britain’s Andrea Arnold who definitely shares some of the realism that Ramsay and Loach provided.

Morvern Callar however, is more of a surrealistic film due to its story as Ramsay would up the ante in the film’s second half where Morvern and Lanna travel to Spain for more fun where it’s followed by these dizzying scenes of parties. One of which has Morvern having sex with a guy she doesn’t know and then comes this very colorful yet chaotic scene partying with people in a small Spanish village near Almeria. Through Lucia Zuchetti’s frenetic editing, Ramsay would create a moment that acts as a catalyst for Morvern’s growing sense of isolation where she would part with Lanna in the middle of the desert and meet the publisher who wants the book that her boyfriend wrote but under her name.

What would happen is Morvern facing an uncertain future where she is going to receive the deal of a lifetime but is still haunted by the specter of death. Death looms all over Morvern as Ramsay creates startling images that are beautiful in its ugliness. Images such as a rotting vegetable, ants and worms on a ground, a ceremony with skeletons that Morvern and Lanna encounter, and walking into a huge cemetery in the middle of Spain. The film ends with an earlier scene in Spain where Morvern is in the middle of a club where hundreds of people are dancing to break-beating techno music. Morvern however, isn’t listening to that as she is listening to a different piece of music on her headphones.

It’s a moment in the film where Morvern is breaking away from everyone and everything she had known. She receives a very hefty check for the book that’s to be published as she decides to leave for good taking a bunch of records and things into a suitcase and leaves everything behind. Even her best friend Lanna whom she offers a chance to go away again but Lanna however, is content at where she is leaving Morvern all alone.

For Ramsay to end the film like that is true to all fates for those who don’t have a sense of direction. Where will Morvern go in the end? Will she write a book about everything she just experienced or just wander her way around everything else that’s happened to her? That doesn’t matter as Ramsay and Samantha Morton allow Morvern to just be who she is now matter how fucked up she is at the moment.

While Lynne Ramsay would finally set her place as one of the world’s best filmmakers with We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2011, it would be Morvern Callar that would set the course of where Ramsay was headed. It’s a film that isn’t like anything that’s out there as it is a story of a woman that is lost in her grief and the actions that she causes in her journey into the unknown. It’s also a film where it delves into the unknown where it defies convention by just letting the camera go to see what will happen. Even if it’s for something that is unsettling and strange. Only a filmmaker like Lynne Ramsay could make something as daring and uncompromising in a film like Morvern Callar.

© thevoid99 2012


Alex Withrow said...

Oh fuck I love this movie. So emotional and intense. Before I shot my movie, I sent my lead actress Cries and Whispers, Blue and Morvern Callar, just to get into the mood of isolation.

Morton is just... Jesus, she's so good in this. You made so many interesting observations here, I don’t even know where to begin. I really liked your insight into the film’s ending though, all of which I couldn’t agree more on. Ramsay is, indeed, one of the best filmmakers in the world. I hope she makes more, more often.

Great post.

thevoid99 said...

If I hadn't chosen to see this film for last year's Cannes marathon, I think it would've taken me a much longer time to figure out to write my screenplay that I was able to get done last year.

I wish this film got more attention. There's nothing like it and I was just in awe of what I saw.

Ramsay is set to release another short film for the upcoming Olympics that's also going to feature a contribution from Mike Leigh as well. I'm going to watch out for it and probably make a mention of it some day. She's already among my favorite filmmakers right now.

Chris said...

a favorite film, ehh? Morvern Callar has been on my radar ever since I was blown away by We Need to Talk About Kevin. Hopefully I'll get to see it soon, I shall give your review a read once I have. S Morton was indeed excellent as the mute in Sweet and Lowdown

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-It became a favorite film ever since I decided to see it for my Cannes marathon last year. I had no idea what I was in for and wow...

I extremely hope Criterion gets the film and release it with loads of extra. They did a great job with Ratcatcher, they need to do the same with this film. Samantha Morton was indeed great in Sweet & Lowdown.