Simple Headphone Mind 

Moody, evocative Morvern Callar finds visual poetry in a young woman’s near-aimless drift

Moody, evocative Morvern Callar finds visual poetry in a young woman’s near-aimless drift

Morvern Callar

dir.: Lynne Ramsay

NR, 97 min.

Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre

When I was a freshman in college, I had a Russian class that met at 10:50 a.m., about 10 minutes before my favorite Chinese restaurant opened. Often—too often—I found myself getting off the campus bus and crossing the street to have lunch instead of doing in-class dictations. And some days, if the music on my Walkman was really absorbing, I wouldn’t get off the bus at all.

In two features, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has made eloquent visual poetry out of that specific desire to travel without arriving. In 1999’s Ratcatcher, she took a boy from the Glasgow slums and put him on a bus to a new housing development, where he roamed around empty, half-built homes and ran like a madman through an open field. In Ramsay’s latest film, Morvern Callar, the title character takes her dead boyfriend’s money and his best mix tape (a Christmas gift from him to her) and roams further and further from her working-class party-girl lifestyle, eventually fleeing to the quietest place she can find.

Samantha Morton plays Morvern Callar, a subdued young woman who works in the butcher section of a supermarket in her small Scottish city. The movie opens with a series of shots of Morvern’s boyfriend, wrists slit, stiff on the floor of their flat, bathed in the blinking lights of a Christmas tree. He’s left her an apologetic suicide note, a stack of wrapped presents and a copy of his unpublished novel, with instructions on how to submit it. Morvern opens the presents, leaves him in a pool of his own blood and meets her friend Lanna (played by Kathleen McDermott) for a night of holiday revelry. Later, she sends out the novel under her own name and takes off to a Spanish party resort with Lanna in tow.

Ramsay ambles her way through this plot—adapted by the director and Liana Dognini from Alan Warner’s novel—over the first half of the film’s 90-plus minutes. Although what’s happening in the story eventually becomes clear, Ramsay delivers the information in oblique bursts of imagery, often without dialogue or music, but with a heavy use of blurred, close-up figures and off-kilter angles to indicate her characters’ precise perspectives. When music does pop up on the soundtrack, its source is usually Morvern’s Walkman, allowing Ramsay to play with perspective via sound as well, as she shifts from the rich reverberation of Morvern’s dreamy mix tape to the tinny resonance of the tape player itself, as heard from outside the headphone speakers.

Through image and sound, Ramsay isolates her heroine, alternately letting the audience into Morvern’s world of disappointment and hope and then shutting us out, leaving us with only the merest guess at what she’s thinking. As it happens, Morvern’s not terribly sure what she wants herself, except for late in the film, when she talks to a couple of folks who mistakenly think she’s a writer. She confesses that the writer’s life appeals to her because it allows her to sit around all day and do nothing. So Morvern Callar is sort of a slacker fantasy, about the dream of having enough money and time to be a proper waster.

But it’s more than that. Ratcatcher had as its central image a muddy canal where people fell in and either drowned or became infected with a hideous rash. In Morvern Callar, Lanna is the malignant presence; the mirror image of Morvern, she remains contented with a life defined by grocery work during the day, pubs at night and ecstasy on the weekends. Lanna’s aimless hedonism threatens to stain the heroine permanently, until Morvern snaps to on a balcony at their cheap Spanish hotel.

There’s no moment in Morvern Callar when Ramsay has the lead make a speech explaining why she’s doing what she’s doing, or how she feels about the direction her life is headed. Instead, the director establishes mood with a repeated sequence. Halfway through the film, Ramsay shows Morvern drifting dreamlike through the strobe lights of a disco, out of step with her dancing peers. At the end, the director shows the same images, but changes the music. While everyone else listens to techno, Morvern has The Mamas & The Papas’ version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” on her Walkman—a reminder of the gift of new life her dead beau willed her, and a stirring indicator of how sweet the world can be when you drown everything else out.

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