Very recently a friend put me on the spot by asking me to name my top three films (in the known universe). Confronted with such an impossible task, I told my brain to calm down and started listing some films:
- Run Lola Run
- Morvern Callar
- Nonstop rambling of various film titles
As you can see, I couldn’t confidently say what my third favourite film (in the known universe) is. It felt like I was setting my personal taste in stone, and my brain started to freak out. However, I did notice that I said the first two titles without much hesitation at all. So it got me thinking… what is it about Run Lola Run, and what is it about Morvern Callar, that made me say them instinctively? I will write about Run Lola Run in my next piece, but today I want to focus on Morvern Callar.
Let me start by saying that this is not a popular film, and I don’t say that to come off as an arthouse snob who “rejects the mainstream”, I just accept it for what it is. The dialogue is sparse, the shots are long, the rhythm is very slow and the ending is ambiguous. If you like your films to be punchy with an ensemble cast and a clear beginning, middle and end structure then Morvern Callar will either frustrate you or bore you to tears.
Another reason people might not like the film could also be because of the amorality of the main character. To some she is a brave young woman who takes advantage of a terrible situation to escape her dire circumstances, to others she is incredibly selfish and quite possibly psychopathic. The film provides no voice over so it’s very difficult to tell what Morvern is thinking throughout the film – all we can do is analyse her actions (and inaction).
The film begins with two figures lying on the floor: one of them is Morvern Callar, and the other is her dead boyfriend. He has committed suicide on Christmas morning and Morvern is caressing his lifeless body, trying to process what has just happened. She looks up at their computer and sees a document waiting to be read. She goes to it and learns that he has written a novel with instructions for her to send it to a specific publishing house.
This is when things start to take a strange turn: without showing any emotion, Morvern starts deleting his name as the author and puts her own name instead. She doesn’t report his death to the police and then goes out to a party as if nothing has happened. When asked about her boyfriend, she simply says that he’s at home. She then uses the money he has left her to go raving in Spain with her best friend Lanna.
I was seventeen when I first saw the film and was longing to get out of my home city and see the world, so I mentally bypassed the moral ambiguity of Morvern’s actions and relished her newfound freedom. Now that I’m older (and hopefully a little wiser) I understand that we’re basically watching a young woman wade through trauma by making decisions on a gut-instinct level who stumbles into good fortune on the back of tragedy, lies and deceit.
Now, this is pretty murky territory and I understand that some people need to like the main character in order to personally invest in a film. While I agree that watching conceited assholes on screen isn’t much fun, there’s something about Morvern that’s oddly captivating. She doesn’t have a masterplan and never tries to intentionally hurt anyone, however she does subvert moral standards by not doing what is deemed as ‘right’ in response to the death of a loved one.
Lynne Ramsay, who directed the film, isn’t afraid to explore death in her work. Her first short film ‘Small Deaths’ deals with death on both a figurative and literal level, and her following short ‘Gasman’ shows a loss of innocence. Her feature films ‘Ratcatcher’, ‘Morvern Callar’ and ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ build upon these themes and present characters that long to escape their challenging surroundings who are inevitably faced with the consequences of death. I haven’t seen her latest film ‘You Were Never Really Here’, but the trailer is 100% dark, punky Ramsay.
One unique trait of Ramsay’s films is the combination of professional actors and non-actors, which creates a sense of authentic energy in her films. Renowned actress Samantha Morton gives an amazing yet otherworldly performance as Morvern, most of which is down to her striking ability to communicate meaning without saying a word (I honestly struggle to think of a Hollywood actress who could pull off the opening scene as well as Morton). First-timer Kathleen McDermott plays her best friend Lanna and is highly believable as a good-time girl who struggles to understand Morvern’s change in behaviour (McDermott joked that she was basically playing herself).
Then there’s the breathtakingly evocative soundtrack, which is a key component of the film (and one of my favourite things about it). Before ending his life, Morvern’s boyfriend compiled a mixtape for her so that she could always remember the… special occasion? It’s an incredibly bittersweet gesture, but when we hear key tracks in the film we are hearing them through her Walkman, so in a sense we are listening to them in real time. It’s a very clever way to combine the soundtrack with diegetic sound, and there’s an audible difference between when she has one earphone inserted to when she has both inserted, so it seems like we’re being enveloped by these new sonic worlds along with her.
Thanks to this film my taste in music really opened up: I became familiar with Boards of Canada, Lee Scratch Perry, Lee Hazlewood, Can and most importantly, Aphex Twin, who has proved to be an endless source of inspiration for me. The film ends on an Aphex Twin track called Nannou, which is played on a music box, which I feel perfectly encapsulates the film: intricate, fractured, playful and haunting.
Lastly, I have to write about the importance of setting in Morvern Callar. The film is literally a dichotomy of darkness and light in which wintry Scotland represents the cold, murky familiarity of Morvern’s everyday life and sunny Spain represents the vibrant, colourful change in her personal circumstances. Ramsay trained as a cinematographer before becoming a film director, so she really focuses on colour palettes and meticulously crafts cold / warm atmospheres that tie in directly with the narrative.
Although it might be dismissed as an odd little arthouse film, Morvern Callar has taught me a lot about visual storytelling, particularly the power of non-verbal acting, and has introduced me to truly evocative music that accompanies particular scenes so damn well (click here to watch Morvern Callar walk down a shopping aisle to Some Velvet Morning). In a strange way, Morvern feels like a real person who lives on in another realm. To me she represents the survivor: the ultimate quiet girl who does radical things.
I’ll quickly mention that the film is based on a book, which is a fantastic read, but the film is a very unique experience as it gives the viewer a lot of breathing space to absorb each detail, warts and all. To summarise, Morvern Callar is a film about being young, being lost and getting fucked up while navigating your way through both the mundanity of everyday life and the extremities of trauma.
Click here to watch the trailer.