Morvern Callar - dir. Lynne Ramsay
Approaching a novel deemed "unfilmable" by both the literary and cinematic community can be the greatest challenge for a filmmaker, a make-or-break endeavor that's worked for some (Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange) and failed for twice as many (Alan Rudolph's Breakfast of Champions, Tom Tykwer's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer). Alan Warner's 1995 novel Morvern Callar, a first-person narrative about a young woman who finds the body of her boyfriend, who committed suicide, in their apartment around Christmas time, was one of those novels, and how Lynne Ramsay, successfully living up to her promise after Ratcatcher, visualized such a difficult work into a film as dazzling as this amazes me to this day.
In expert fashion, Ramsay operates with a complex narrative voice, a different breed of the novel's "first person." The film is entirely singular and dependent on the titular Morvern, played perfectly by Samantha Morton. While the film relies solely on her, it's not a window to her interior consciousness. Before killing himself, Morvern's boyfriend leaves her with an array of Christmas gifts, the most significant one a cassette player and accompanying mixtape which provides the auditory clue to the film's relationship to its protagonist. Shifting seamlessly from the diegetic sounds from her headphones to the encompassing swirl of music which takes over the film, Ramsay utilizes a tactic that feels either prudent or thoughtless when used by lesser filmmakers. And yet, it provides the film's rhythm, one of visual and phonic poetry, as well as defining the film's placement to its character.
Ramsay never feels the inclination to explain or defend Morvern's actions throughout the course of the film. With ethically questionable decisions like disposing of her boyfriend's body and sending his novel to a publisher's office with her name on it, Morvern views her world the same way Ramsay views her, seeking an unjudgmental beauty in humble surroundings. Ramsay's search is altogether more successful than Morvern's, as the money in her boyfriend's bank account allows her to escape to Spain with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), who reveals before the trip that she fucked her boyfriend behind Morvern's back. It's never clear whether Morvern is in a state of emotional paralysis, akin to Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, or if this it her ticket out.
Though plot is significantly less important that mood, Ramsay raises a number of questions about interpretation and gender. When the novel Morvern's boyfriend wrote is met with enthusiasm from the publishers, the term "distinctive female voice" (possibly) suggests a covert motive from the representatives. Is that the book's selling point, and to what level does that change what her boyfriend has written? Warner's novel is written from the point of view of a woman by a man. Ramsay's film is a woman's interpretation of a man writing as the voice of a woman. Does our perception of the film, or the novel, hang on these perspectives? Answering (or trying to) these questions would certainly disrupt the film, so Ramsay simply acknowledges their hovering presence and continues on the journey.
Shot by Alwin H. Kuchler, who also shot Ratcatcher and Ramsay's short Gasman, I can think of few films I'd want continuously projected on my wall more than Morvern Callar. The images are consistently breathtaking, something that could never be truly conveyed through the stills I've chosen as its beauty is only enhanced by the movement of both the camera and the subjects. Like the audio track, Kuchler's camera weaves the interior and exterior together meticulously. The cinematography, sound design, performances and narrative voice all assemble marvelously, making Morvern Callar a bold, enigmatic and seminal work of one of the most promising voices in contemporary cinema.
With: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott, Raife Patrick Burchell, Ruby Milton, James Wilson, Dolly Wells
Screenplay: Liana Dognini, Lynne Ramsay, based on the novel by Alan Warner
Cinematography: Alwin H. Kuchler
Country of Origin: UK
US Distributor: Palm Pictures
Premiere: May 2002 (Cannes Film Festival)
US Premiere: 16 October 2002 (Chicago International Film Festival)
Awards: Prix de la jeunesse (Cannes Film Festival); Best Actress - Kathleen McDermott (Scottish BAFTAs); Best Actress - Samantha Morton, Best Technical Achievement - Alwin H. Kuchler (British Independent Film Awards)