Some Velvet Mourning: Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar At 20

A subversive portrait of grief and working-class ennui, Morvern Callar set the tone for Lynne Ramsay's power in capturing emotional and ethical dislocation, finds Josef Steen

Pity Morvern Callar. Or maybe don’t. It’s not every Christmas you wake up with a dead boyfriend under the tree, along with his now posthumous, unpublished novel on a floppy disk and a mixtape with your name on it as a stocking filler. It’s also not every mourner’s automatic choice to methodically chop up their deceased and bury them in the Scottish highlands. Or — to top it off — pass said novel off as your own, and keep schtum about the suicide.

Followers of Lynne Ramsay’s filmography will be familiar with jarring and often morbid volte-faces like the one that charges the otherwise ambling plot of Morvern Callar, her sophomore feature. After her debut Ratcatcher, a dark coming-of-age tale about a young boy with a terrible secret, her choice to adapt Scottish novelist Alan Warner’s 1995 bizarre existential novel challenged audiences even further.

Morvern Callar follows a taciturn and deceitful titular anti-heroine, brought to twisted life with an elfin mystique by Samantha Morton. Morvern is a young woman living in the coastal Scottish port town of Oban, her name itself sounding more like a barely populated and long-forgotten Scottish town than a person.

In one way, this is apt: when you want someone to carry such a monstrous secret, their name should be as enticing as it is obscure. Morvern dances over conventional rules that let audiences root for fictional characters. Her immediate reaction to the bloody suicide of her boyfriend is to run off into the night for pills and thrills and the Krautrock sounds of Can.

Yet like Morvern, the viewer keeps wanting more. It could be down to her goofy embrace of grim behaviour, her glazed-over aloofness or simply her offbeat wardrobe. Rarely has a character been so pitiful, monstrous and charming, without having all that much to say.

Such is Ramsay’s fond but never misty-eyed fascination with troubled, eerie individuals that her choice of adaptation seems more authentic in hindsight. Across her modest cinematic output are individuals dealing with personal horror. She also appears to have a keen awareness that often with trauma words can serve as much to confuse the subjects as much as provide clarity.

Despite being one of Ramsay’s more unsung films, Morvern Callar mulls on this dilemma with a morbid lyricism that anticipates her penchant for characters dealing with dreadful impossible conflicts — a throughline that connects Morvern to Ratcatcher’s James, We Need to Talk about Kevin’s Eva and the murderous hired gun Joe in You Were Never Really Here.

In Morvern Callar, silence conceals a singular kind of trauma compared to the tragic, life-altering error of a young boy, or the lives destroyed by motiveless psychopathy. On paper, she should be grieving the loss of a lover. On screen, she rips apart the tropes of grief at the seams. Her behaviour seems in constant flux, as she vacillates between the roles of reticent, kindly victim to cold, impulsive troublemaker (and rather shit travel companion). The point for Ramsay was never about ‘getting to the bottom of that sorrow’. In fact, Morvern’s most devilish acts are made playful and liberating, aestheticising horror to suggest this as some answer to the apathy and listlessness she feels in her leaden, trolley-pushing life.

Ramsay exploits the sensuous power of cinema, fusing aural and visual techniques to cloak the wretched moments of Warner’s novel with a beguiling aura of unreality — as if to let the viewer dissociate with Morvern. In curating this tone, as subversive as its protagonist, Ramsay’s own artistic development in some ways aligns with that of her heroine. Her confessed identification with Morvern perhaps further confirms this.

Through music, otherwise mundane sequences are imbued with a luminosity that makes this subversiveness so alluring. One scene perfectly captures the rich excitement of discovering and absorbing new music, as Morvern shakes and bobs to the mixtape her dead boyfriend left her with a puckish grin. The sound of Can’s ‘Spoon’ thrums over the soundtrack, and the lyrics here provide a subliminal illustration of the level of detachment she has from what’s happened: Oh, sitting on my chair where nobody want to care / Carrying my own in the afternoon.

In the next scene, Morvern pushes a supermarket trolley at a serene, glacial pace to the silky sounds of Nancy & Lee’s ‘Some Velvet Morning’. The rumbling, quasi-psychedelic track conveys both her dreamlike dissociation and a percolating desire to jump ship. In place of Morvern’s lack of affect, the soundtrack and sound design help substitute the narrative logic for an ambivalent, yet compelling, emotional one. This makes her bizarre frostiness more enticing, suspending judgement in a way that anticipates Tilda Swinton’s Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The mixtape sequence concludes with the gallows humour of Morvern chopping up James’s corpse to the lilt of the Velvet Underground’s ‘I’m Sticking With You’, repurposing its quaint and innocent message into something almost vengeful. By deviating from Warner’s Morvern — in the novel, the music obsession is hers and not her dead lover’s inspiration — Ramsay suggests how this posthumous gift is what galvanises her into acting with such bloodless (and bloody) calculation. Morvern, it seems, refuses to have this tragedy draw her further into the mundane existence she has been living.

Always in tandem with this rich and ethereal use of sound, Ramsay’s visual palette consolidates Morvern’s dilemma. The contrast of deep red and icy blue hues recalls the kitchen-sink chiaroscuro of Ratcatcher, but with a gaze less poignant or sympathetic. You can almost taste her ardour for something more, even if this longing itself demands such visceral emotional violence.

The film’s stark two-act structure bears out this idea, while gently undermining her inner and outer retreat from conventional grief. Once Morvern, her best friend Lana and we are transported to Almeria, it becomes clear that the anchor for this story is Morvern’s burgeoning impulsivity. She encounters a young man who is grieving for his dead mother, fucks him, and cries with him. Next thing she has recruited Lana to walk with her to a nearby town, gets the pair lost, and leaves her.

In the 20 years since its release, Morvern’s subversive joie de vivre might be interpreted as a fuck-you to hypocritical male moralising. One could put forward another take: with close listening, a traditional burial may be all-too-familiar to Morvern (note the hint very early on that James’s eventual resting place is the same hill as her foster mother). Her less-than-conventional response to his death also prompts the suspicion that she might see this suicide as not-quite martyrdom and more like being jilted at life’s altar (perhaps even the real thing, if one ambiguous shot of a ring on her left hand is to be taken at face value).

Reading Morvern Callar with this much literalism is perhaps risky. For every frame showcasing Ramsay’s felt admiration for the taut realism of directors like Robert Bresson, another will lend a level of surrealism, reinforcing how she wished to see Morvern as a character who was more ‘iconic and symbolic’ than in the novel. It helps to remember, also, that this is a film where a humble garden trowel is used to bury a human corpse.

Ramsay’s penchant for angular, saturated cinematography — bordering on the hallucinogenic — signalled her desire (hinted at by the brief fantastical sequences in Ratcatcher) to escape the confines of social realism. Despite the tendency of some at the time to cast the director as Scottish cinema’s female heir to Ken Loach, for Ramsay, morality and redemption are not the priorities of cinema. It is possible to explain Eva’s maternal failures in Kevin, the murderous heroism of You Were Never Really Here’s protagonist Joe, and even decode the psychology behind Morvern’s despicable actions. It is also fruitless.

What mattered, and still matters, is how the full spectrum of primal, uncomfortable emotions can be depicted — painted, as it were, with rich, deep colour and in unusual textures. Morvern’s silence is imbued with such vitality and drama that it pays to watch her drift and drag. By the film’s end, this also allows Morvern’s journey to finally bear some trace of catharsis. Once more, a musical sequence mediates her inner state. The song is the Mamas and the Papas’ ‘Dedicated to the One I Love’: a gentle Spanish guitar gives way to swelling vocals and drums that contrast with the sounds of a crimson, strobe-lit nightclub somewhere, presumably far from Oban.

The wordless scene creates an earnestness absent from anything that has come before it, and the effect is purifying. It isn’t clear whether Ramsay is gesturing towards any genuine epiphany per se, but on some level, the emotional disconnect that has defined Morvern Callar’s narrative has been bridged. She now walks alone among the crowd, as if in quiet acceptance of her solitude.

Whatever comes next post-Scotland, Morvern will walk it with her signature authenticity, but perhaps also with a sensitivity and honesty which, until now, has escaped her. It is cinema’s good fortune that these qualities are yet to escape Lynne Ramsay’s grasp.

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