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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Review: Morvern Callar (2002)

* * * *

Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Samantha Morton

Unopened presents under the tree, an unpublished manuscript on the computer, and a dead body on the floor. It must be Christmas. A study in existential nihilism, or perhaps just extreme detachment, Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Morvern Callar remains a stunning film, both for its brief bursts of exuberance and for its long stretches of silence. Rarely has a film so brilliantly conveyed the inner life of its protagonist, a woman whose flat affect and, shall we say, unusual coping methods, masks deep pain and an even deeper feeling of restlessness. Morvern Callar is a cold but fascinating movie, built around a pitch perfect performance.

It's Christmas Day and Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) has woken to find her boyfriend dead, his body lying between the kitchen and living room, a suicide note on the computer. "Don't try to understand," the note tells her, "It just seemed like the right thing to do." It goes on to tell her to "be brave" and provides instructions on where to send his unpublished manuscript, and to use the money remaining in his bank account for his funeral. At first Morvern does nothing. She simply lives with the body and goes about her life - opening the presents under the Christmas tree, going to work, meeting up with her friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) - and then, finally she makes a decision. First she erases her boyfriend's name from the manuscript, replacing it with her own before sending it off to the first publisher on the list that he's left for her. Then she disposes of his body, dismembering him in the bathtub and then taking the pieces out to the middle of nowhere to bury. Then she takes the money.

Money in hand, she and Lanna set off for Spain where the film's color pallet changes dramatically, replacing the dreary grey of Scottish winter with the sun drenched reds and yellows of Spain. The pair ends up at a party hotel that suits Lanna just fine, but proves to be the opposite of what Morvern needs, resulting in Morvern dragging her nearly naked friend out of bed and into a taxi, where after much driving, they end up by chance in the middle of a festival and forced to abandon their ride. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Lanna is miserable but Morvern has never looked happier - at least for a while. Later she meets up with two representatives from the publishing house who work so hard at locking her into a deal that they fail to notice how little she has to say for herself as a writer. All she wants to know about is the money, because the money is the thing that's going to enable her to move on to the next thing because for her that's all there is - she's just got to keep moving.

Morvern Callar is a hard, brutal film, but it's also an oddly poetic one filled with little grace notes. Objectively, what Morvern does to her boyfriend is callous and inhuman, but there's a degree to which the film is in sympathy with her. Consider the note, its condescending tone which implies that Morvern isn't capable of understanding the deep, psychological crisis which has driven him to suicide, and its instructions to tie up the loose ends he's left. In stealing his manuscript and getting rid of his body, Morvern is taking a stand, refusing to clean up the mess that he's made, and treating him with the same degree of consideration that she feels he has treated her. That's not to say that what she does isn't, you know, insane, but within the context of the film and this particular character, there's an internal logic to all of it. For Morvern, everything that happens is ultimately meaningless. She goes through the film searching for meaning in something, anything, and coming up short at every turn, but it's not the fact that life is meaningless to her that makes the character, or the film, so extraordinary. Rather, it's that she turns out to be the only one actually searching for meaning in her experiences. Lanna is a more lively character but, as the ending reveals, she also see life as being ultimately meaningless. While Morvern worries over the lack of meaning, Lanna is content to drown it in sex and drink and drugs, telling Morvern that there's no point in picking up and moving somewhere else because "it's the same crapness everywhere, so stop dreaming." But Morvern can't because she wants it all to mean something. She wants to end up "somewhere beautiful" where she can feel something other than the void left by mere existence.

Ramsay's direction here is strong, using silence to the narrative's advantage by creating a distinct visual dialect and by allowing Morton's performance to fill in the story's blanks. Morton - for my money one of the most consistently great actors working today - is an actor who can do a lot with a little, and who can express a wealth of character detail simply through the expression on her face and the carriage of her body (consider her Oscar nominated performance as a mute in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown). Here some of the story's most profound moments occur as the film just watches Morton, stripped of dialogue but telling us everything (I can only imagine what Morton could do in a Terrence Malick film), her character drowning on the inside while all around her people find ways to defeat the existential demons that plague her. This is one of Morton's strongest performances to date and, like the film itself, should not be missed.


thevoid99 said...

Seeing this film 2 years ago for the very first time during my Cannes Marathon was a true game-changer for me. It was unlike anything I had seen and it was my first discovery of Lynne Ramsay. I really hope she recovers from the debacle over Jane Got a Gun as I still think she's one of the best filmmakers working today.

Norma Desmond said...

Eesh, yeah, I hope she can bounce back from that. I also hope that someday someone writes a behind the scenes book about the drama on Jane Got a Gun.