When first we see Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton), the enigmatic young heroine of Lynne Ramsay's strange and beautiful film of the same name, she's nuzzling her boyfriend's face. As the lights of a small Christmas tree flicker on and off in the couple's meager flat on Scotland's west coast, Morvern's hands travel slowly down the young man's inert body to his slashed and bloody wrists. He has killed himself, leaving her with a pile of Christmas presents, a compilation tape of his favorite music (which will serve as the movie's giddily eccentric score) and instructions to send his just-completed novel to a number of publishers. Morvern opens her presents, takes a bath, paints her nails and goes out partying with her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). Tanked on booze and Ecstasy, Morvern wanders out to the water's edge, where, deliberately and without a ghost of a smile, she lifts her skirt for a passing boatman in the black night. Returning home from her dreary job at the local supermarket, Morvern cleans up the flat (corpse and all), changes the name on the novel to her own, and sends it off to a London publisher. Then, using the money her boyfriend had earmarked for his own funeral, she treats herself and Lanna to a packaged holiday in sunny Spain.
In less poetic hands, Morvern Callar, based on a novel by contempo-beat writer Alan Warner, might have unfolded as a zany black comedy or a moral tale about the perils of modern hedonism. There are hints of both in Ramsay's interpretation, but if you've seen her previous work—the exquisite short film Gasman, about a little girl who discovers she has a sister, and her acclaimed first feature, Ratcatcher, about a small boy in a rat-infested Glasgow housing estate dreaming of a better life—you'll know that plot and theme serve only as deep background for Ramsay; like her other movies, Morvern Callar is intensely atmospheric. The film has a laconic, minimal script: Morvern says very little. She never gives an account of herself, and Ramsay and co-writer Liana Dognini won't help us out by providing the young woman with any discernible personality. We may not know whether to like her or deplore her conduct, but we can't help but be drawn to her otherworldliness.
Ramsay, to her chagrin, has often been lumped with Mike Leigh and Ken Loach as a British miserabilist, but there's nothing remotely mopey or harsh in her evocation even of Morvern's chilly, squalid Highland habitat—Ramsay's a lyricist of everyday life, wherever and however it's lived. Beyond the beach where Morvern goes to sit and think, the water is a shimmering silver, the mountains on the horizon a stunning gray-green, as in a fairy tale. And there's beauty, comedy and terror in the image that greets her as she shows up for work with her Walkman clamped to her ears: we hear the music that carries Morvern through her drab days, as a woman in a motorized wheelchair rounds a corner and bears down on her in the hard, white light of the supermarket aisles. The effect is no less lovely than that of the golden light of southern Spain, and much lovelier than the tacky resort where Morvern unenthusiastically raves the night away with Lanna and sundry replicas of the pimply British boys they hang with at home. The landscape—and the movie's staccato pacing—function as projections of Morvern's quicksilver inner life.
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With her pale, haunted, ecstatic face, her wide baby's mouth and guileless blue eyes (she's vacant and secretively knowing, like the young Rita Tushingham, who played Morton's spacey mother in her first feature, Under the Skin), Morton seems a changeling, a stranger wherever she lives. Not for nothing was she cast in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report as a murmuring, vegetative oracle stewing in a bath of milky-blue liquid, or as Sean Penn's apparently mute consort in Woody Allen's Sweet and Low Down. Morvern parties along obligingly with Lanna (played with marvelous poise by McDermott, a trainee hairdresser plucked from the streets of Glasgow), but she's broody and restless, and when she drags Lanna off to the Spanish countryside, we're witnessing not only a break for freedom, but also the imminent end of a long friendship between two young women who aren't yet aware of how little they have left in common. Ramsay's claims for female friendship—fractious, bawdy, tender, full of loyalty and small betrayals—and the Lynchian way she shoots the women from odd angles, around corners, through doorways, recall Jane Campion back when she was full of cheeky promise—and before her compulsive need to shock audiences undid her. Ramsay is not primarily trying to freak us out—rather, she's painting two worlds, both of them warm and deep, but finally incompatible. Lanna is a party animal, the wild child who awes her less venturesome friends in high school. But she has no imagination; you can see her five years down the line, happily or unhappily married with four kids and living not two miles from the spot where she was born. Morvern wants out any way she can, and when the first publishers on her list fly to Spain to negotiate a deal for the "distinctive female voice" they hear in the novel, Morvern brazens her way through the negotiations. It's a very funny scene but with an undertow of pathos, and Ramsay leaves us with the possibility that when it comes to understanding the limits of freedom, Lanna may be the one with the existential goods. "It's just the same crap here as everywhere," she tells Morvern. "So stop dreaming." There's every reason to believe she's right, but who in the world wants to stop dreaming?
Morvern Callar was directed by Lynne Ramsay; written by Liana Dognini and Ramsay, based on the novel by Alan Warner; produced by George Faber, Charles Pattinson and Robyn Slovo; and stars Samantha Morton. Now playing at Edwards University, Irvine.
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