Morvern Callar (U.K., 2002) * * * 1/2
D: Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar is, above all else, valuable for being an experiential film, a film of sensations. The plot is quite beside the point--which will be trying for some. But it seeks to place you in the shoes of its title protagonist (the always-great Samantha Morton), who witnesses the world through headphones--drowning out the world around her--and even when she removes them, she seems to still be listening, waiting for the world to transform into something other than ordinary.
As the film opens, to a strobe effect which will be echoed several times in the film--here created by flickering Christmas tree lights in a dark room--we see a half-naked man sprawled upon the floor, and then Morvern, stroking his arm, and stroking the blood at his wrist. This is how she's found her boyfriend, but he's left her presents, including a mixtape (shades of Radio On) and a novel he's just completed, which he asks to be sent to a publisher. The man sounds insufferable, but luckily for us it is not his movie. Morvern does not call the cops, but lets the body sit for days while she contemplates what to do; she hits the town with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) in what is, for them, a typically decadent night, dancing, tripping, making out. They're Scottish; they work in a supermarket; their idea of ambition is to travel to Spain to hang out at a hotel for spring break debauchery, picking up guys and taking shots. But an idea has struck Morvern, and she decides to take her dead boyfriend's suicide letter literally--he has written "For Morvern"--so she changes the byline to her own name before submitting it to a publisher. To her surprise, the publisher shows interest, and now she has to meet up with them so they can make their offer. In Spain, she wanders the hotel, at one point hooking up for anonymous sex, but for her own reasons: to comfort a grieving man. (The parallel scene occurs near the beginning of the film, when she picks up a ringing payphone at the train station and offers open comfort to the distraught somebody on the other end.) She urges Lanna away from the parties of the pool resort to see the real Spain, which goes better for Morvern than it does for Lanna.
Morvern remains fascinating throughout, because while she is not the artist that her boyfriend was--and therefore has a difficult time fooling the overeager publishers--she yearns to express herself in some fashion, if only she had the means. Woody Allen once nailed the idea in his Bergmanesque drama Interiors: "What happens to those of us who can't create?" All poor Morvern can do is wander with her headphones, feeling something in the mixtape that makes her yearn for more than she has. But her inspirations are morbid: taking credit for the manuscript, disposing of her boyfriend's body (she buries the pieces on a hill using a garden spade), ditching her friend in the Spanish wilderness. You don't exactly root for Morvern; you wonder at her. She carries the movie with her unpredictability. And yet she is not the typical, boring surrogate for the sensitive screenwriter: she is a party girl, prone to fits of giggling at inappropriate moments, restlessly immature, and really unable to understand that pull she feels toward expanding her life into something other than working by day and partying by night. What is most refreshing about Morvern Callar is that I'm not sure I've seen this character in a film before.
It's based on a novel by Alan Warner, but the film is directed by Ramsey, a woman (who also made another cult film, Ratcatcher), and written by Ramsey and Liana Dognini. It has a woman's eye, a woman's gaze; the female nudity (abundant) is not eroticized but feels raw and natural. It is voyeuristic only in the sense that one feels, as one does throughout the film, a sense of discomfort, of prying into someone else's life. The film seems remarkably real, in much the way of another recent (and raw) Scottish film, Red Road. But it also has a lightness, matched by the disorienting soundtrack selections (often at a sharp angle from what is happening on-screen); a dreamlike quality, and a sense that anything can happen because the standard rules don't seem to be applying.
Frequently the soundtrack songs drop out, essentially moving from what Morvern hears (enveloping beats and melodies that push out all ambient sounds) to what someone else would hear--tinny, muted noises. It's the most critical contrast Ramsey provides for the world that Morvern sees and a starkly different "reality." But when you're caught in that misguided swoon of Morvern's, the film is strangely transporting, like jumping off a building--the thrill of feeling the wind against your skin just before the inevitable crash.