Escape artist: Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar

Morvern Callar is a modern-day fairytale featuring self-reinvention, female fun and rave culture, argues this feature from our October 2002 issue.

Morvern Callar (2002)
This feature first appeared in the October 2002 issue of Sight and Sound

Who is Morvern Callar? With the first image of Lynne Ramsay’s latest film, the questions start. The blank face of Samantha Morton – who plays the eponymous Morvern – comes and goes in the blinking of her bleak, cheap Christmas-tree lights. What we see, on and off, is already enigmatic. Then the credits spell out the name, first MORVERN, then CALLAR, separated by screen time into different, adjacent frames.

And what is Morvern Callar? First, it’s Ramsay’s soulful adaptation of Scottish beat writer Alan Warner’s 1995 cult novel of the same name. Building on the promise of her award-winning feature debut Ratcatcher (1999) – a dark story of childhood in 1970s Glasgow – Morvern Callar finds Ramsay making a serious bid for A-list status, despite the fact it’s only one film away from her earliest shorts (Small Deaths, 1995; Gasman, 1997). Its audacious mix of imaginative casting, avant-garde technique and kick-ass music is drawn into the weave of accessible storytelling. Morvern Callar is both passionate and entertaining; perhaps the bravest, and certainly the coolest, film of the year.

Ramsay says she saw buried in Morvern Callar a modern girl’s “black fairytale”. Like any good fable, this picaresque journey involves wish-fulfilment, desire and transformation, all haunted by the insistent presence of phantoms. The director conjures up an array of surreal techniques to work her magic on Morvern, in the process telling what is basically a simple adventure, a story of escape that also reflects on home.

Morvern is a 21-year-old supermarket schlub living in a small port on the west coast of Scotland (Oban, where Warner grew up, is Ramsay’s main Scottish location). The film opens with a painterly passion scene of her embracing her boyfriend’s corpse on the kitchen floor, for this Christmas he has decided to commit suicide. In the novel the boyfriend is never named; Morvern just thinks of him as “He” throughout her first-person narrative, rendered with an upper-case ‘H’, like God. This dead boyfriend is Morvern’s first, and primary, good fairy, bestowing posthumous gifts that foster her dubious liberation. She opens the Christmas presents He’s left her, loads the Walkman He’s bought her with the tape He’s compiled for her (labelled ”Music for You”) and prepares to party.

These opening scenes bristle with the presence of the dead: Morvern looks to Him as she opens the tape, says “Sorry” to Him as she takes money from His back pocket. The body stays untouched on the kitchen floor for a few days while Morvern dances her way through grief with her best mate Lanna (a stunning performance by unknown Kathleen McDermott). Morvern never lies about what’s happened: when quizzed about her boyfriend, first she says “He’s at home in the kitchen” and then “He’s left me.”

Morvern never reports the death, and deals with the body herself. She mourns Him but shows no remorse, no guilt for – as it were – dancing on His grave. If she gets away with it, it’s partly because she doesn’t lie: Morvern is guileless as well as guiltless.

Morvern Callar (2002)

When she eventually returns home she confronts the suicide note saved on the computer. “I love you,” it reads, and “Be brave.” Then come instructions telling her how to go about publishing the novel He has written and bestowed to her on disk – a gift from a cyber-ghost, manifest in electronic text not ectoplasm. Coolly, Morvern deletes His name from the title page and inserts her own. In Warner’s novel this is an act of clear betrayal – perhaps Morvern’s only crime, since He had hoped for posthumous glory. But Ramsay’s heroine takes the suicide note’s message – “I wrote it for you” – at face value; He wrote it for her, so she takes it. As Morvern cleans up the body ready for dispatch, so she erases the writer’s identity: the sound of the opus printing mixes with the aerosol hiss of air freshener.

The question, then, is not whodunit, but who is left behind and what she will do next. Has Morvern become the author of her own fate? The problem of replacing His identity with hers is especially tricky given the uncertainty of who she is. In Warner’s novel Morvern’s first-person narrative voice is the source of everything, and though it’s difficult to fathom, it gets under your skin. Morvern’s signature idiolect hesitates between inarticulacy and deliberate verbal refusal: we never know whether our unreliable narrator can’t say something, or won’t. Samantha Morton recently reported that she once did a reading from the novel at a festival, ”As if I were reading a statement to the Old Bill”, an opacity that characterises her performance here. Morton’s Morvern is reticent; she may not be guilty, but neither will she give herself away.

Fans of the original will probably come to the film looking for the novelistic Morvern’s eccentric interior monologue. Ramsay and co-writer Liana Dognini therefore took a risk when they decided not to use voiceover. Morton doesn’t even attempt a Highland accent, perhaps because she simply couldn’t sustain one. Ramsay, however, amply compensates for this in the way she directs her performance. Somehow she manages to makes Morvern’s persistent watchfulness immensely watchable. Both women, in fact, are observers, and turn us into observers too. Ramsay catches Morvern’s point of view for us, but we are placed in the peculiar position of sharing her solipsism while never knowing what drives it. Whether Morvern even has an ‘inside’ is questionable; like the details she notices, she’s fascinating but unfathomable.

Understanding is less important to Ramsay than sympathetic visual identification. For a brief moment at the supermarket Morvern lingers quizzically over a maggot squirming in the sausages, a detail that exemplifies Ramsay’s poetic way with resonant images – here is the decay that underpins the shop’s bright lights, but here also is Morvern noticing such things, like a Sartrean hero reflecting on the arbitrariness of death. This is only one of the insignificant creatures (insects, mostly) that crawl across the landscape, catching Morvern’s eye with their busyness, their concealed purpose.

That we are also denied any knowledge of the content of the novel Morvern purloins begs another question, not ‘What’s in the novel?’ but ‘Why doesn’t Morvern care what’s in the novel?’, especially now she’s its author. Ramsay uses Morvern’s blithe ignorance as a neat opportunity for a joke on the intelligentsia: when the book is accepted for publication Morvern candidly tells the publishers (ghastly urbane representatives of the chattering classes) that she likes writing because “You can knock off when you want, have a cup of coffee” – her late boyfriend’s lifestyle, presumably, which compared favourably to her stints at the superstore. The publishers hear her (true) words as postmodern irony and laugh. But the question remains as to when and whether works belong to their originators, especially since the film we are watching is an adaptation.

Morvern Callar (2002)

Furthermore, “Morvern Callar”, the name typed on to the novel’s title page which comes and goes in the film’s opening credits, is itself a conundrum. For a start Morvern is fostered, making her relationship to her patronym problematic. For Ramsay there’s rich potential for exploring issues of female identity in this woman’s uneasy relationship with her strange name. When I first sought out Alan Warner’s book I had to spell the name out to the bookshop assistant. Morvern does the same: in a scene written for the film that substitutes for the book’s ‘will she, won’t she?’ debate on whether Morvern will report the suicide, she sits on a bench in the dark of night meditating on her next move. A public payphone rings nearby and Morvern answers it, partly because she’s goodhearted and wants to be helpful, partly because she’s the descendant of Kafka’s Josef K., compelled by the singular absurdity of a phone ringing into the night to assume it’s for her. Like the sucker on the bus who always attracts the lonely talker, Morvern touchingly enters into a reassuring conversation with the troubled soul at the other end. She even offers her name to establish that she isn’t the person the caller wanted, but then is obliged to spell it out.

A man Morvern encounters later in Spain also cannot say her name (Lanna corrects him three times). Spain becomes important to the film’s theme of escape, but its language is also significant for how we read the heroine. ‘Callar’ in Spanish means ‘to be quiet’. A Spanish character in the book suggests that Morvern is “a local word” (presumably a Spanish dialect word) for “more quiet”: this is Morvern the mute observer.

But Morvern is also the name of an area near Oban (the part of the Scottish mainland adjacent to the Sound of Mull) and Caller is a Gaelic word meaning fresh or cool. Both names thus link the heroine to the place she escapes from and to the one she escapes to, muddying the question of identification and belonging ever further. Morvern seems to resolve this by spending much of the film wearing a gold necklace she has found which reads “Jackie” (simpler to spell, and with it round your neck you’ll never forget who you are).

Whether Morvern can ever forget Him is a different matter. The computer’s delete button, which erased His name so readily, did not erase His body. So having taken His corpus, she dispatches His corpse. Stripping down to her knickers, she straps the Walkman around her waist and chops Him up in the bath, now dividing what she caressed across the opening credits. If she transgresses, it’s theft not murder – theft of a body whose owner has gone, theft of intellectual property cast adrift from its creator. But Ramsay’s film is not ghoulish; her heroine is no monster.

The quirky accompaniment of the Velvet Underground’s disturbing ditty ‘I’m Sticking with You’ gives this butchery scene a humorous black energy that might merit comparison with the use of Steeler’s Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ in Reservoir Dogs, though Tarantino’s ear-slicing pivots on sadism whereas Morvern is essentially engaged in good housekeeping. More significant are the lyrics, which suggest identities sliding into each other, or the substitution of one self for another: ”I’m sticking with you,” sings Mo Tucker with a hypnotic-psychotic artlessness, “Cos I’m made out of glue/Anything that you might do/I’m gonna do too/You held up a stagecoach in the rain/And I’m doing the same/Saw you hanging from a tree/And I made believe it was me.”

This swapped-selves theme is also developed in a moment in the novel when Morvern watches Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), a film in which Jack Nicholson takes over the identity of a dead man when he gets fed up with his own. Morvern Caller has done the same: she may not have appropriated someone’s passport (as does Nicholson) but she’s appropriated His future, trading herself in on the proceeds.

Ramsay turns the whole Morvern story into a kind of remake of The Passenger for girls – both protagonists walk out over men’s dead bodies and then steal their identities; both hope this new-lives-for-old swap will bring adventure, exchanging (in The Passenger) reporter for gunrunner and (in Morvern Callar) the fruit-and-veg section for the fruits of the literati. In both films the characters flee to Spain (Antonioni and Ramsay both shot substantial sections of their films in the Almeria region). But whereas Antonioni’s hero had to be male (there’s a tired chauvinism about his angst and the way he fetishises his “Girl with no past” Maria Schneider), Ramsay’s is her own woman, though she makes her escape by purloining a man’s cultural capital.

Morvern Callar (2002)

Once the book is dispatched, the film tracks this escape fantasy. As in Trainspotting (1995), to which Morvern Callar will undoubtedly be compared, the protagonists’ poverty means that release must come in the form of dosh. Clearing out His bank account, Morvern buys herself and Lanna a trip to the sun, first on a nightmare ‘Youth Med’ package holiday full of hectoringly hedonistic yobs arseholed on chemicals, then to a vital ‘real Spain’ of whitewashed villages and vIbrant fiestas. Lanna prefers the costas: ‘We could’ve been out clubbing it,” she moans, “instead we’re surrounded by donkeys and cactus.”

The friends may differ on what constitutes a good time, but it’s clear they love each other. Their intimacy and hilarity are infectious; the exchanges between first-timer McDermott and Oscar nominee Morton are a cornerstone of the film. Ramsay goes hell-for-leather in full celebration of female fun, evoking an urgent joy rarely seen on mainstream screens. One gorgeous scene in Morvern’s flat features the girls merrily off their faces, brimful of mischief with pupils blasted open by hallucinogens. As if it were the wickedest thought in the world, Lanna impishly suggests doing some recreational hoovering or some baking. A sublime frenzy of slo-mo flour-throwing ensues (a more po-faced cultural critic than I might read this as debunking women’s traditional relationship to the kitchen). Ramsay coolly shoots the billowing flour-clouds, the leaping women, through an open door, letting the joke tell itself and including in the image those fairy lights, still poignantly flickering in the corner.

The comparisons to Trainspotting run deeper. Both films are based on novels by prominent Scottish new wave writers and directed by the hippest young film-makers of their moment: Danny Boyle was for the 1990s what Ramsay seems to be becoming for the early 21st century. Both respect the cadences of regional language and dialect, layered sensuously into a dazzling visual landscape. Both directors have shown that horror cinema is not the sole vehicle for the surreal, and that surrealism can be uncovered at the heart of realist storytelling. Ramsay is Scottish; Boyle’s first two features were made and set in Scotland. The cinematic equivalent of Britart and Britlit is thus exemplified by work set, partly funded and produced by talents north of the border.

Both films, and the novels on which they’re based, also find escape potential in rave and drug cultures. In Trainspotting Renton’s choice is heroin; Morvern plumps for hallucinogens, cigarettes and alcohol, though she has a generally diffident relationship to drug use: Ramsay’s film is not a study of addiction. Money buys Morvern out of poverty and provincialism, not chemical dependency.

Morvern Callar (2002)

In the novel Warner observes that life for the underclasses proceeds in a way unrecognisable to everyone else, “as if poor people were in a war that no one else was.” Ramsay depicts this war through poignant details – mildewed bathrooms, shredded stockings – and in the quality of the film’s light. The Scottish section feels cold, comfort coming only from the radiance of an electric bar fire. In her dingy flat Morvern holds her freshly varnished nails up to dry and the focus is pulled so her fingers all but blur into the dismal wallpaper behind. But the offer of a ludicrous sum for ‘her’ first novel turns Morvern into Cinderella. The nail-varnish shot is repeated in Spain with vivid blue sea framing her fingers: money means you can change your background, remove yourself into the rich azure seen before only on a postcard stuck on someone’s fridge.

But Ramsay is careful not to oppose rich and poor simplistically as light and dark, utopia and dystopia. Her magic is alchemical: in squalor something always glitters. Ratcatcher is set during a binmen’s strike so its characters live among refuse and filth, but it contains dazzling poetry, as well as promise (the escape vision of open fields). One of Morvern Callar’s finest gestures of imagination comes when Lanna’s dirt-poor granny Couris Jean points a bony finger up through her window to the snowy sky – another human hand framed by light.

Both Boyle and Ramsay also have an acute ear for a great pop tune and a sixth sense for how it should be placed to drive the story forward. Music here is absolutely integral to character development. Ramsay’s approach is to make almost everything we hear emerge from her protagonist’s Walkman; Morvern’s Christmas tape is the film’s primary music source, diegetic or otherwise. The aural landscape sweeps across and between the direct sound which is Morvern’s earphones-in experience and that irritating, tinny buzz you get from someone else’s Walkman at a distance.

Warner’s book was astonishingly musically literate, not to say anally retentive in its obsessive track-listing; reviewers noted it was one of the first novels to deserve its own soundtrack. As Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity attests, men have long occupied the position of self-ascribed authority when it comes to the collectibility of popular music, but Morvern’s desire meticulously to catalogue her aural pleasures comes close. Of course this novelistic playlist leans heavily on another man’s musical passions – Warner’s – which range from jazz-funk and fusion to world music and hip-hop. Most of his detailed references don’t survive into the film, however: only Lee Scratch Perry (which accompanies a savagely edited love scene) and kraut-rock improvisers Can make it to celluloid.

Can do feature prominently, though, and illustrate the way music and movies bleed in and out of each other in the worlds created around Morvern by Warner and Ramsay. Warner, a jazz bassist himself, dedicated Morvern Callar to Holger Czukay, Can’s bassist and a seminal producer in his own right. Czukay has been credited with pioneering sampling (Can were doing it in 1968), and the band’s relentless mix of incantatory, rhythmic innovation, genuine funkiness and occasional ambient chillouts has made them influential on indie, avant-garde and dance culture, all of which are also represented in Morvern Callar.

Yet for all their muso-collectibility, Can are a band with a longstanding movie affiliation. Czukay’s first solo foray was entitled Movies, and though it wasn’t a soundtrack Ramsay makes it so by including a track from it in her film. Czukay described another of his albums (Moving Pictures) as “a sort of ‘virtual film music’, made for non-existing films – yet.” If Warner’s novel deserved a soundtrack, Can deserve a film, and here they find it. Indeed they did occasionally fund their rock experimentation with soundtrack commissions, and ‘Spoon’, from the classic 1972 album Ege Bamyasi (most of which Morvern listens to in the novel while burying her boyfriend’s body) became the theme tune to a 1970s television series. So it’s fitting that ‘Spoon’ is one of the film’s first Walkman-space set-pieces as Morvern listens, smokes, watches His body and weaves us into her solipsism.

Morvern Callar (2002)

The club scenes here are also masterpieces of sound design and editing, the music sporadically too loud and over-muffled, coming and going in waves and jags. The sensory effect on the audience is like a disorienting drug: viscously psychedelic though formally very tight, these scenes make a brave stab at reproducing the sensation of being off your face and sensorially battered by the excesses and deprivations of club aesthetics and sticky crowds. As the music rises and blurs, so the image, mostly blues and reds and blackly silhouetted bodies, is by turns too dark and too dim. What we hear doesn’t correspond to what we see. Then comes the sharp focus of Morvern’s face, a still observer in the middle of it all, broken up by flashes and strobes too erratic to predict.

Such is the stuff Ramsay’s dreams are made of. Her amalgamations of image and sound are quite unforgettable, in the sense that their effects won’t easily fade, like a sore that refuses to heal. Of course, it’s more exquisite, more sensual than that. The divine moments of Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher are the most insistently insinuating – and the hardest to recall. They stick inside you like shrapnel, like repressed thoughts that are never quite gone.

As Morvern Callar closes (inconclusively), its heroine once again departs, but it’s music that begs the final question of whether she’s escaped, and from what. Morvern plugs in her usual soundtrack – ”Music for You” – her individualised virtual reality. Sound and image are dissonant, the Mamas and the Papas crooning ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’ over yet another chaotic rave scene. As a prayer from the dead – don’t forget that He chose this one too – it’s as spooky and memorable a romantic ending as any in contemporary cinema.

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