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January 14, 2003

Morvern Callar: Taciturn actress continues silent streak

The title character of Morvern Callar (yes, that's her name) wakes up on Christmas day to find that her writer boyfriend has killed himself. An apparently unmotivated suicide, he leaves behind only a brief note explaining that "it seemed like the right thing to do." His girlfriend doesn't reveal the suicide; she goes to a party that night and tells her friends that he suddenly left town. She sends his completed manuscript to a publisher (per the instructions on his note) but puts her own name on the byline. Finally, she buries him herself on a hillside outside of town and spends the money he left for a funeral on a trip to Spain with her best friend. In all of this, I presume, she was fumbling for a way to move on.

I should note here that the summary in the previous paragraph is not the set-up for the rest of the plot. That is the entirety of the plot, although there's a bit more internal logic to the movie's presentation of the same events. So now the question is why. Why does she cover up her boyfriend's suicide? Why does she decide to keep her best friend uninformed about what's really wrong? The frustrating thing about Morvern Callar is that we'll never know. We are, in fact, little more than sympathetic observers during the course of the movie--thrown into a story half-completed amongst characters who begin as enigmas and never become any more believable. While a few moments are enough to make the performances endearing, and the directorial flourishes are enough to make the movie impressive, we're kept at arms length for so long that giving up eventually becomes the only option.

Samantha Morton, whose big break came playing Sean Penn's mute wife in Sweet and Lowdown, stars in a role that doesn't require much more dialogue than her first. It takes quite a while to realize that although the film is set in western Scotland, her accent differs from everyone else's; at one point she mentions that she's originally from England. Her performance--purposefully--shows very little emotional or intellectual depth. She displays a strained happiness when she's around others, and a sort of vague melancholy when she's on her own. Simplicity intrigues a lot of actors and directors. Certainly not all of us are hyper-literate, nor are we emotional volcanoes. However, even simplicity has to be established and not simply assumed. It's true that some people are fundamentally out of touch with themselves--they can't tell you how they feel about something as devastating as the suicide of a loved one because they themselves don't know.

This sort of conflict is understandable, but it still takes some work from the actors and the screenplay to fully demonstrate it to the audience. That never really happens in this movie. So much of Morton's performance depends upon her reactions to other people--her visit to her friend's grandmother, the look on her face when a pair of London publishers fly to Spain to tell her they want to publish her manuscript--that she becomes a projection of the audience's own reactions. We don't so much get an exploration of a personality, as much as we get a trip into our own personalities. We either would or wouldn't hide a loved one's suicide, and we get to find out why. We either would or wouldn't run away to Spain, and we get to find out why. We either would or wouldn't become fed up with the people around us, and we get to find out why. Gleaning self-knowledge from a movie is helpful, but it's also cheap. Any dime-store self-help book can put us into uncomfortable situations and reveal how we would react to them; much more difficult is a work that has an original perspective on such things, and makes us think that perhaps we've been wrong all along. Fun though it may be to write our own portion of the script, eventually we become like a badgering psychoanalyst--we want to know what she thinks about it.

Lynne Ramsey--whose previous movie, Ratcatcher was one of the most acclaimed movies of the late 1990's--directed Morvern Callar. While Ratcatcher was effective at evoking the hopes of childhood even during the squalor of the Glasgow garbage strike in the 1970's, it depended on long, silent passages, which are Ramsey's trademark. Ratcatcher worked because it used the directorial flourishes to underline all the right moments (those who have seen it probably remember the shot of the mouse floating in space, which, honestly, makes sense in context). Most of what happens in Morvern Callar, though, can't be explained by long, silent passages. The old cliché that you can't show a person thinking hardly applies universally, but there are indeed certain things you can't show people thinking about; existential quandaries might just be one of those things. I don't mean to say that there's not something truly great about parts of the movie; in particular, the early Christmas party scenes and the closing scene in a Spanish dance club are triumphs of sound design and photography, but those scenes speak more to Ramsey's talent than to the quality of her movie.

It's clear that the screenwriters (Ramsey and Liana Dognini) wanted to make some kind of point about the shallowness of modern people, either modern people in general, or modern young people in particular. The scenes of idiotic British youths getting into beer fights on hotel balconies in Spain (one thing this movie gets right: Spain is in many ways the armpit of world tourism), or the self-absorption of the lead character's best friend are enough to make this point ring true.

It's true that young people have an especially difficult time dealing with tragedy. We affect either a false sort of world-weariness or simply refuse to admit the gravity of everything that we've seen. Perhaps in a world where every conceivable tragedy--and every conceivable response to tragedy--has been played out for us in movie, television, and song to the point that it's all part of the same massive cliché, the only new insight that anyone can hope to offer is a sense of our bruised psyches. Several scenes establish Ramsey's fascination with vicarious emoting: the way some of us will listen over and over to a song that says what we believe that we simply could not say on our own. Morvern has a strange attachment to a mix tape her boyfriend gave her on Christmas morning; in some way she hopes that it will explain why he did what he did; in other ways, it's an escape for her, a way to admit how she really feels. The real shame is that it's not her admitting how she feels, but a little bit of the culture that's stunted her.

That's hardly a complete commentary, though. Are we meant to conclude that the boyfriend's suicide, and Morvern's reactions, are caused by desperation? Are we meant to conclude that we in the audience can never make sense of those around us? Neither meaning is very nice; perhaps neither one is true. I only wish I could say for certain.