Morvern Callar

(UK - 2002)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott, Linda McGuire
Genre: Drama
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay & Liana Dognini from Alan Warner's novel
Cinematography: Alwin H. Kuchler
Composer: -

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Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar is an existential film featuring ambivalent characters that ultimately asks why the withdrawn and detached star is alive? Similar to Albert Camus’ legendary existential novel The Stranger, the author denies the audience a privileged point of view into the main character’s psyche while depicting the world in a very lucid manner that simply isn’t the terms a “normal” person would use to describe things. It’s a bit trickier with a film than a novel, as rather than coming from the description of the narrator Ramsay’s camera is forced to be a highly observational instrument whose detachment doesn’t undermine the abyss of her characters by being critical of the liabilities that make them voids.

Lynne Ramsay emphasizes mood over plot. Though non-professional Kathleen McDermott is impressive as the libertine and has sisterly chemistry with typically excellent Samantha Morton, Ramsay’s journey primarily relies upon the visuals and soundtrack. Sterile settings with harshly bright whites and drab grays are used to depict the dull days, while shaded, tinged, and saturated filters are used for the psychedelic nights. The film is highly fragmented, both in cutting style and meaningless dialogue that seemingly leads nowhere beyond creating a portrait of an empty soulless existence. The electronica and techno soundtrack conveys more about what’s going on inside Morvern Callar (Morton) than whatever she actually tells us.

Morvern Callar is a difficult film precisely because its characters are so remarkably simplistic. Morvern instinctively moves through the world without a thought process that would make sense to anyone else. Again, she’s the kind of character that under the “right” circumstances might shoot someone in response to the glare of the sun. She not only fails to understand others, but more importantly herself. This detachment results in her simply occupying space most of the time, and Ramsay maintaining that distance emphasizes the existential qualities of the work. It’s not about Morvern judging herself or the audience judging her. She’s neither an admirable character nor one to be punished, though in a different story the latter would certainly be a possibility. She’s simply runs with a tragic situation, gaining independence and freedom, except from the realization of what allowed her newfound fortune. She could kill her boyfriend for his cowardly abandoning, but in a way she has him to thank because it prompted her to choose something beyond sex, drugs, and loops of lull.

Rejecting a system of meaning in regards to the boyfriend’s suicide, the event has no greater meaning beyond shocking Morvern into a state of inward reflection. This is a world without guilt or redemption, without anything to give meaning to one’s actions. Life is absurd rather than a series of signs to be interpreted that will then act as guideposts for the enlightened. Given everything is ridiculous and meaningless, we ultimately must decide whether to embrace life and love it or reject it and call a halt to it. Perhaps Morvern searches for a manner to affirm her own reason to live simply to prevent her from accepting her boyfriend’s conclusion, thus prompting her to join him?

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Morvern Callar is similar to the fiction of Franz Kafka in that it constantly elicits but readily crushes each and every grasp at a conclusive explanation. Certainly the purpose of the film is not to guide one in the mechanisms of handling suicide, as Morvern simply lets the corpse rot on the floor, eventually utilizing her boyfriend’s finances and taking his book as her own to attain more. To judge Morvern’s actions literally or use them as some kind of guide would be to miss the point entirely. This isn’t a world of motivation, a world where we know precisely why we do certain things much less can determine whether they are morally right before doing them. If anything, the purpose is for the audience to adopt a certain philosophy that allows them to attain a lust for life despite, or probably more precisely because of all that’s hopeless and illogical in the world.

One must also consider Morvern Callar within the context of Lynne Ramsay’s small but high quality body of work. Perhaps the best way to view the eponymous character is to see her as a continuation of the traumatized children Ramsay has dealt with in her previous works, particularly her first short Small Deaths where the effects are much greater in actuality than the incidents would lead you to believe. At 21, Morvern is theoretically an adult, but her mental growth was stunted by her perpetual displacement. As a foster child whose foster mother passed away, Morvern doesn’t fit in anywhere. The lack of ever having anyone she could count on to stick with her may have kept her from maturing properly.

Trauma that isn’t surmounted, and the ability to truly do so is debatable, recurs. Perhaps Callar’s boyfriend committing suicide this Christmas triggered the previous trauma such as everyone that should be reliable checks out or possibly the new trauma put Morvern over the edge. It’s not really important beyond its result of rendering her incapable of dealing with anything through a rational thought process. Perhaps that’s not as difficult to deal with for Morvern as for most, as her pastimes are ones where you just act. Her unsatisfying life is a series of thoughtless repetitions as a low wage slave at a grocery story by day and a party girl by night, the drugs and alcohol she tries to escape though only serving to further retard her decision making and grieving process.

Ramsay creates her own dreamy musical landscape, using the fact that her character cannot act rationally to explore other ideas. It’s hard to think of many similar films, though I’d cite Peter Del Monte’s Invitation au voyage where the brother takes his dead twin sister on a wild road trip as he tries to figure out how to bring about her rebirth. To a certain extent both are investigations into whether interior similarity can trump exterior. Ultimately, the death serves as a catalyst to seeking the identity they’ve always lacked.

The suicide is both an enable and disabler for Morvern. By using her boyfriend’s remaining money, Morvern can temporarily lead a different life. By replacing his name on his finished manuscript with her own, she can perhaps make those changes permanent. It’s sometimes easier to change your identity than the purpose of your life, not that Morvern ever had any. She doesn’t know what she wants or likes, just that the market she works at is far from super.

Keeping her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) is of primary importance to Morvern because it’s her only real relationship, about the only good thing in her life at this point. She takes her on vacation with her, paying her way. Seeking family, they visit their grandmothers, but the more Morvern grasps at changing the bigger the rift between her and her close friend becomes, and given the circumstance the more alienated Morvern becomes from everyone.

Lanna has family and is accepted, so she is complete in an area where Morvern can never be whole. She’s a happy hedonist, and as any sense of local culture has been removed from clubbing, travel isn’t satisfying to her. Party life is ultimately as shallow and manufactured an experience in Scotland as anywhere they could travel to. However, Lanna does notice one major difference, she’s not as comfortable in Spain, which is understandable given she doesn’t speak their language. But ultimately the gap between her and Morvern grows because she lacks any desire or motivation to change.

As Morvern increasingly moves toward freedom, we see the price is a series of isolating decisions. She can’t party every night because she was as much a slave to that half of her life as she was to the grocery store. She can no longer be around those who knew her before because seeing her mysteriously with money and without boyfriend they’ll know something is up. She can’t be herself because she’s supposed to be a brilliant author, but she can’t be a brilliant author because she’s an uneducated dimwit. Right now she can only be, and hope that it’s enough for Chance the Gardener to be mistaken for Chauncey Gardner.

Considering Samantha Morton is one of the best actresses currently working and already did excellent jobs playing a mute in Woody Allen’s half decent Sweet & Lowdown (since his Radio Days that's an “accomplishment” for Woody) and someone coping with traumatization caused by the death of a loved one through casual sex in Under The Skin, she was probably an easy choice for the lead role. Her performance, like the film as a whole, will either be captivating or infuriating due to a certain impenetrability. She mopes, whines, and sits around doing nothing. She’s generally very childish, hoping that a spark will catch fire, but we doubt anyone ever took the time to try to teach her survival 101.

One of the aspects I appreciate most is novelist Alan Warner doesn’t hoist events onto the story to serve as catalysts for Morvern’s improvement. It doesn’t take a conscious effort to temporarily bring Morvern out of her depression. Her routine escapism initially helps her cope with her boyfriend’s death; acting for others distracts her from the reality of her situation. Throughout the movie, depression and escapism are constant warring forces. One minute Morvern suffers in silence, the next she’s in a giggling stuper. She comes to life then dies again right before our eyes, sometimes due to the surroundings but often for no more reason than what’s going on inside of her. Ultimately, this is a life affirming work because she finds independence in escaping both forces, as well as the need for what others can never give her, but since Ramsay avoids the cliches people may misread the movie as gloomy.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *