Morvern Callar

Watching Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar I could only decipher about 60% of the dialogue. Even when I turned up the volume to levels that probably annoyed my neighbors. Most of the characters speak in a heavy Scottish accent. But this was less relevant than for most films. This is a film about an individual’s internal life; a life not communicated in words to anyone during the course of the film. While I wished for a DVD version with subtitles, looking back I don’t feel I missed much. All that needed to be conveyed was painted on the face of the titular young protagonist (an incredibly nuanced and restrained by Samantha Morton) and through the canny use of pop music, visual motifs and idiosyncratic motivations.

The film is set during the holidays. Morvern comes home to her costal Scotland flat to find an unexpected gift under the blinking lights of their small Xmas tree: her boyfriend dead by his own hand. His note tells her to be brave. He leaves wrapped gifts: a leather jacket, a walkman and a mix tape. The film that follows consists of the next 10 days of Morvern’s life as she deals with the pain and confusion that this act has caused.

One thing that struck me immediately was that Morvern, as evidenced by her accent, is not Scottish. While she is Scottish in the novel that the film was adapted from, this detail helped me to better understand Morvern’s unusually restrained reactions to this event. It lead me to imagine a scenario whereby she moved North as a teenager, alienated from her family, to live with her boyfriend in a strange town. She is not able to develop a strong emotional bond with anyone, even her best friend – a rather vacuous party girl. When she finds herself in this situation she has no release. It’s not that she’s holding back because either she’s numb or callous, it’s because she does not have anyone she can trust with her feelings. Morton’s performance is marked by actions that seem selfish and absurd to the viewer. But they become more explicable if seen as the acts of a vulnerable, lonely, scared, confused, immature teen set adrift. The choice of making Morvern English, necessitated by Morton’s admitted inability to put on a believable brogue, becomes an effective device for explaining subsequent decisions that appear otherwise absurd and morally questionable.

Finally, one cannot talk about this film without mentioning music. Morvern’s boyfriend’s mixtape gift (“Songs for You”) is the one thing that Morvern is able to hang on to throughout the journey. Laden heavily with some unsettling/psychedelic tunes (Boards of Canada, Can, Stereolab) that are all the audience hears when the ear buds are in. Thankfully, Ramsay avoids most of the sort of “music video interlude” clichés that are the trademarked province of Tarantino or Spike Jonze and, frankly, are just trite when not done with significant originality and panache (for a wonderful example of how to use this trope see “(500) Days of Summer.) Ramsay is forgiven for the scene of Morvern walking in slo-mo into the supermarket for work while playing Nancy and Lee’s “Some Velvet Morning if only because that is such an evocative and delirious song with such an ambiguous tone to it. Ramsay avoids incorporating any songs with any on-the-nose, immediately applicable to the situation lyrics. Moreover, because these songs will not be immediately recognizable to most viewers and, at the very least, probably will not be tainted by any other previous pop-cultural associations, Ramsay can create definition for moments of the film through music in a way most films cannot without coming off as campy or derivative. She demonstrates the rare effective use of the pop-music soundtrack to add to the film without taking one away from it.

After watching this I immediately purchased it online because I know that I missed so many subtle moments on first viewing, not only in the acting but in the repeated thematic devices (such as the chthonic bugs and worms that fascinate Morvern, perhaps referring to her desire to understand another entity now one with the ground or the repeated use of slowly flashing red light.)

Recommended for those who appreciated the similar themes and light touch of The Sweet Hereafter as well as any other fans of Morton’s other stellar work (such as Control and Synecdoche, New York.)

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