I saw this memorable movie, Morvern Callar about 4 nights ago now, and thought that as a movie written (Liana Dognini), directed (Lynn Ramsay), produced by (Robyn Slovo) and even filmed, edited by , and starring unusually talented unconventional women, I could find no better place to describe, praise and recommend others to watch it than my Reveries under the Sign of Austen. I first became aware of Samantha Morton as a remarkable actress in the film adaptations of Austen's Emma (1996, by Andrew Davies, starring Kate Beckinsale -- Morton remains the best Harriet thus far), Jane Eyre (1997, by Robert Young, with Ciarhan Hinds it is the most anguished and meditatively thoughtful film version I've seen, and The Libertine (2002, a Johnny Depp movie, she was Elizabeth Barry). I then read my friend Nick's blog about her directing a film, The Unloved and learned of her background as an abandoned child who grew up in institutions, and has spent much of her adult career genuinely combining a need to make money and do good fine art work with products intended to teach and increase social justice.
I had never heard of Lynn Ramsay before, but on Women Writers through the Ages we spent a full three months and more sharing and watching and discussing movies made by women, starring them, about and for them (so that some of the movies I watched were by men) and I had learned these movies as a group had specific salient characteristics. This one was somewhat different from most (no group of women, the heroine not seek a man as her primary goal in life, no lesbianism), but it does have some of their central characteristics: about a woman or women centrally from their own point of view, the stress on subjectivity, immanence, private life as experienced from below.
Last I had read an article on female sexuality in modern movies by Liz Johnson Perverse Angle, Feminist, Film , Queer Film, Shame, Signs 30:1 ;(2004):1361-84, and it centered on Morvern Callar as depicting a young woman's sexual and psychological perception of life unusually candidly and truthfully.. This one had won all sorts of prizes and so I asked Jim if he could find it in Bit and Torrents and download it for me. He did. I found it a very anxiety or worry-inducing experience. It reminded me of Roman Polanski's Repulsion: both are about a young girl who has experienced an intensely traumatic experience, which is sexually or socially outside what is thought to be the norm; the difference is Ramsay is kinder to the central heroine, empathetic with her; Polanski enters the mood of trauma fully and projects it strongly at the viewer at the same time as presenting it coldly, clincally. He is put off. Ramsay identifies and leads the actress to play the part with great self-control as a girl might who didn't want to be put away.
Here's the story in a nutshell, a working class girl, Morvern (Scots, played by Samantha Morton) wakes up one morning to find her boyfriend has killed himself. Here is an early still of her. It takes a few minutes before we realize the body lying next to hers is dead, and bleeding.
You might call it a very ironic Christmas story for it opens in Christmas and the earliest part of the movie occurs during this "holday" season. Much is made of the Christmas tree in the apartment which Morvern doesn't take down. She reaches over to him. She feels his hands, his skin, his back, his body. Blood is all over his arms. She notices the computer and a words on it so she goes over to read his last note.
The only sound we can hear is of the computer hard drive engine.
The boyfriends has left her a manuscript of his book. She tells no one he killed himself but after a few weeks of living with his corpse (bleeding everywhere, stinking) in her apartment, she buries him herself. She types her name over his manuscript and sends it to London to a publisher.
She goes about her life as if nothing had happened insofar as she can: with her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) to clubs. Both have thick working class accents, with Lanna much more Scots in accents. Both work in menial jobs in supermarkets -- the jobs are seen as menial. She spends her time in a big fridge with lots of meat (the allusion to the corpse is there).
Morvern's outward behavior seems "normal" or usual, but the viewer knowing what she has in her apartment recognizes she is going through trauma. Her friend knows something is wrong and is told her boyfriend left her.
After she finally buries the corpse, she travels to Spain with Lanna. Throughout she is trying to have a good time.
Looking out the window at the sand, the bathing suit just bought for this occasion. She does get irritated with Lann who is rather dull and silly and she bosses Lanna around and pressures Lanna into leaving a nice hotel in Spain where they have taken up with two young men and are having sex with them.
They travel to a remote village in Spain (not hard to find, as they are not all that remote).
They quarrel and she moves on alone (sharing the money with the friend):
She gets a call from a London publisher and (most improbably), the publishers come to Spain, offer her a spectacular 100,000 pounds after a long conversation in which they see how strange she can be (like taking them to look at tombstones). I think they suspect she didn't write the novel but don't care. With this money she quits her job; this time Lanne won't come; she has a boyfriend and is content with the job she has.
It ends very abruptly with her leaving her local area. We last see her on a train station and we hear birds and the sun glints in the sky. There is much pop music in the film, and at this point as the movie turns into flashing snaps of Morvern as she was at the clubs, we hear "While I'm far away from you my baby ... the darkest moment is always just before dawn."
I guess she got away with not telling anyone :).
I don't know that it is all that improbable no one would come looking for this young man. People do live anonymous lives and a lot of myths are promulgated about families caring or acting. He was depressed for a long time apparently. The real problem for the movie for me is Morvern is inarticulate and its fairy tale ending. She is a "woman of the people" and we are to pick up a lot from very little talk. At the same time, it is wholly improbable that she'd collect 100,000 pounds so easily and be able to get out of her village with no problem. Is it likely that she would travel so alone and never get raped or hurt? What would she know of the further away world? And we do agree with Lanna, what is she to do now? In a way the film just stops. It doesn't know what to do next. I rather like that instead of the film tacking on some uplifting ending (as so many films do).
But Morton is up to the acting and what kept me watching was that she didn't go over the top with her trauma.
I think the movie is only partly about shame -- this is Liz Johnson's central idea that the movie is a candid depiction of a young girl's sexual life and what is controlling the girl is shame controls this girl -- as it does the girl in Catherien Breillat's art film, A Real Young Girl (in Breillat's film the heronie masturbates apparently). Johnson talks a lot about the marvelous camera work of the film. This use of a corridor is however typical of woman's films: the woman caught in the hall:
Often the camera keep us so up close to this girl's skin. We feel as if we are so close to her physically and really there, looking along the ground involved within the experiences.
It does seem to me true that Morvern is ashamed of what happened, ashamed to tell anyone, and much of her behavior is controlled by the need to guard herself. She does not seem ashamed to work where she does, but she knows it shocks the publishers who come to visit her; they say how amusing that this is your job, and then ask what else is she writing. They hope to make oodles of money from her book. We are never told the book's title nor its content nor why it should make money.
But it''s Morvern's abilty to stand or sit there with a guarded apathetic face as she's laughed at or talked to by various character which makes watching possible: the heroine in Repulsion doesn't or can't and it's excrucriatingly mortifying. We respect Morvern because her ability not to lose it, to keep her trauma in enables her to survive. This turns the movie into a kind of slice of life that does persuade us (me anyway) that I'm watching a really felt experience: the small things that are happening all the time which the camera focuses on -- eating, listening to music, walking, how it feels to be inside one's body. The sexual scenes are not prominent but just part of life, to be taken in, dealt with, enjoyed or (often) nor, and most of the time endured, and then you move on.
I suggest the meaning of the film is: how to cope with life which for many girls, especially those not in the upper class and privileged brings deep inner distress. The film did hold me though at a couple of points I was tempted to stop the software program because I worried about what was going to happen to this girl. We've been talking about Polanski on WWTTA and Wompo and I had written a blog about the rape case; that might be why I was reminded of Repulsion. It was when I was that I thought of turning off the software. But Morton and Ramsey are far more controlled; in fact it's not embarrassing to watch Morvern; she controls the distraughtness and remains on the edge. It's a fine calibrated performance. So I could manage -- for there is a strong element of identification for me in watching such a film.
Why was I anxious? I kept waiting for her to get caught and be blamed for murdering the young man. I thought she was endangering herself by sending that Ms, but apparently not. No one cares enough. Now this might ironically be part of the fairy tale element I felt was so strong towards the end.
So my take is the movie is also about isolation, how we live our lives in isolation and have to have courage just to go on everyday. Here she is driving with a family who pick her up in Spain:
The note of the boyfriend to her is important. It's on her computer screen and she keeps it there and returns to the luminous box several times during the film. He says "I love you." He says he couldn't take "it" anymore. He apologizes. And he says "Be brave." We never do see his face clearly. She has his photo on her wall and we glance at it with her from time to time. He gives her strength as did his email, and his book gave her money.