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Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsey) 2002
Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsey’s follow-up to her terrific debut feature Ratcatcher, holds up remarkably well in comparison, even if it doesn’t quite surpass its predecessor. Certainly, it’s got a powerhouse opening, showing its titular protagonist (Samantha Morton) as she has a disturbingly sensual moment of mourning after finding her boyfriend’s corpse just after he’s killed himself in the doorway to their kitchen. The buzz of the electric lights on Morvern’s Christmas tree make the image fade in and out, but as it does, a bit of her face seems to stay behind like some sort of ghost. Make no mistake though: Morvern’s not a ghost; she’s the haunted one. Emotions reverberate throughout the film underneath the surface, even if they’re rarely articulated. Unable to cope directly with her mate’s death, Morvern goes off on a hedonistic night of excess, only to find that the clear light of the morning doesn’t help matters. When we see her casually playing with a lighter her boyfriend intended to give her for Christmas as she’s sobering up, the film hits its emotional high point. Morton’s silent tears reveal that her attempts to deny his death didn’t do much to stem off the inevitable moment where she has to deal with it. In these early scenes, there’s a remarkable sense of the environment’s temperature and the way that the heat or lack of it affects the state of mind that Morvern finds herself in. The color of the lights that Ramsey uses to light her sets only further remind us of the internal churnings of her character since they’re reflective of her mindset.
It’s not long before Morvern takes off on a vacation with her dearly departed’s cash in tow, and the only copy of his unpublished novel sent off to a publisher with her name attached. The film settles into a more conventional mode here, to its slight detriment, as Morvern begins her search for herself. Though Ramsey never begins relaying clichés, exactly, there is a noticeable lack of suspense that hampers the viewer’s interest level. Just as we knew in the early scenes that Morvern’s murky existence was temporary because the unpublished novel that her boyfriend left her alongside his suicide note was a golden ticket out of her working life, the presence of a publisher’s rabid interest in the manuscript diffuses much of the second half’s anxiety as Morvern and her best mate blunder about the Spanish countryside. One could quite easily argue that the journey and not the destination is what matters here, especially since the question seems to be not if Morvern will take advantage of the novel, but when. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that I wanted more mystery about the eventual destination.
Plot aside, there’s plenty to love about Morvern Callar. The aforementioned visual sensuality is no small feat, and the film is carried by two solid performances. Whenever Ramsey extends the scope of Morvern’s concerns beyond her protagonist, and into a generational anxiety, the results are impressive. Perhaps the best moment in the film occurs when Ramsey turns her pop soundtrack into a tinny shadow of itself, suggesting that it’s the listeners of pop music that make the songs sing and add whatever life that exists in them to them. Morvern’s a bit of a cipher, but Morton provides her with a fetching energy that makes us want to puzzle her out. It’s almost unfortunate that Ramsey seems so eager in to dwell in life’s ugly moments, since they are the hardest bits to swallow in the film. When Morvern stops at a Club-Med style youth spa, she ignores the pleasure in front of her and tracks a roach into the bedroom of a boy who’s just learned of his mother’s death, and then gets lost in a sexual frenzy with him. When she wanders back to her own hotel room the next morning, despite what seemed to be a sort of catharsis, she can’t help but chip away at the paint by the door jamb. When Morvern finally does emerge from her insular emotional cocoon as an adult (evidenced by her sudden tendency to keep her head indoors while in a speeding car), the sensual nature of the first half of the film returns, though we watch Morvern play with coins and unwrap a new dress instead of digging up worms and getting bloodied up. It seems too easy that Ramsey equates Morvern’s internal happiness with the locale she’s in and the actions that she’s performing. If Morvern Callar isn’t quite as good as Ratcatcher was since many of its emotional elements feel a bit put on, it does still seem to show a great deal of maturation in the development of its most promising director. I’ll certainly be excited to see her next offering.
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