The New Cult Canon: Morvern Callar

The New Cult Canon: Morvern Callar

Last week, I kicked off the New Cult Canon column with Donnie Darko, which I called a quintessential cult movie, one that has accumulated a large, passionate following through midnight showings and DVD, even though it tanked in general release. But that isn't the only criteria I'll be using to define a cult movie over the weeks and months (and years?) I'll be rolling out this project. Phenomena like Donnie Darko are rare, and in that particular case, almost anomalous; far more common are movies with a cult sensibility, offbeat visions that are pointedly removed from the mainstream, often willfully bizarre, and, for lack of a better word, "cool." The "Cinema Of Cool"—a term Jeff Dawson coined in a book he wrote about Quentin Tarantino—applies to many of the filmmakers I'll be covering in this column; for this new generation, style matters, as does the sheer sensual pleasure the movies have to offer.

Lynne Ramsay's 2002 film Morvern Callar was the inspiration for this column, because for all its bleakness and deliberate frustrations, I can think of no cooler movie. It's a wonder that theaters didn't have doormen standing behind velvet ropes, determining who was hip enough to step into its world of enveloping disaffection. Based on Alan Warner's novel, which was part of a brief flowering of Scottish literature in the wake of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, the film is an adaptation with a high degree of difficulty. It's one thing to adapt someone like James M. Cain, whose steamroller plots are action-packed and give off a lot of surface heat; it's another to capture a character's internal life, which is usually the exclusive province of novels. Working with a plot that could fit comfortably on a cocktail napkin, Ramsay has to rely almost entirely on cinematic effects—and Samantha Morton's revelatory performance—to decipher a woman who's so deep in an existential funk that her behavior is always curious and sometimes extraordinarily callous.

Before getting into the movie itself, a few words on Ramsay: To my mind, Lynne Ramsay is one of the most talented filmmakers in the world, even though she only has two features to her credit, and nothing since Morvern Callar. Ramsay has a background in photography, and in her movies, it's clear that she's a photographer first and foremost. Each frame is immaculately composed, and unusually focused on the minute details that are more characteristic of photographers than film directors, who are usually concerned with the bigger picture. After making a series of acclaimed short films, Ramsay shot her stunning 1999 debut Ratcatcher, which might have been another piece of UK kitchen-sink miserablism if not for Ramsay's extraordinary eye for finding poetry in the everyday. (Incidentally, three of Ramsay's shorts are collected as bonus features on Criterion's Ratcatcher DVD.) Though Ratcatcher wallows in the horrific world of its 12-year-old protagonist—a Glaswegian apartment-dweller in the early '70s who lives in the stinking squalor of a garbage strike—it nonetheless has moments of real beauty. As I said in my review of the DVD, "Just when Ratcatcher seems overly content to bathe in Euro-art squalor, Ramsay counters with passages so breathtakingly lyrical and improbably optimistic that they shake off the oppressive pall that too often passes for hard realism."

In recent years, Ramsay has suffered some discouragement in getting her third film to the screen. She won the rights to Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones while it was still an unpublished manuscript, and watched it slip away from her as the book became an unexpected phenomenon. True to form, Ramsay reportedly loved the grim premise for the book—about a little girl who's raped and killed, and then watches the aftermath from heaven—but disliked its second half, which she found too sentimental. She worked for more than a year to craft a screenplay more to her liking, but the rights eventually went to the all-powerful Peter Jackson, who's currently filming it for release next year. Ramsay was later attached to direct an adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver's brilliant book about a mother grappling with her son's Columbine-like rampage. To me, it sounds like the ideal fit, but that project appears to have died on the vine, since I've heard nothing on it since 2006. So for now, there's only Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, and hopefully a young filmmaker who isn't too discouraged to keep pushing new boulders up a hill.

For High Fidelity types like myself, the mix-tape has always been an important (if somewhat feeble) form of romantic expression, the pop-damaged equivalent of sending a bouquet of flowers. And Morvern Callar features the mix-tape to end all mix-tapes, with tracks from bands like The Velvet Underground, Can, Boards Of Canada, Broadcast, and Aphex Twin, among others. Morton's eponymous heroine receives her mix-tape in the cruelest fashion: As one in a series of Christmas gifts given by a boyfriend who has just committed suicide. (She also receives a leather jacket, a Walkman, and a lighter.)

As the film opens, Morvern is curled up on the floor next to her boyfriend's corpse, with Christmas lights pulsing like a disco around them. He's left her a note on her computer screen: He apologizes. He tells her he loves her. He encourages her to "be brave." He also leaves behind a completed novel and a list of possible publishers to solicit, as well as his ATM card for money to pay for the funeral. Clearly bruised by her boyfriend's cruel departure, Morvern doesn't follow through on the dead man's wishes, to put it mildly. She changes the byline on the novel to her name, and rather than using the cash from his bank account for a funeral, she buys tickets for her and her party-animal friend (and supermarket co-worker) Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) to vacation in Spain. Here's what she does with the body (this clip is NOT SAFE FOR WORK, so tread carefully):

Take that, Juno! After boozing it up in their native Fort Williams—and after Morvern disposes of the body and cleans up her apartment with toilet paper and air freshener—the two woman head to Spain, where the film's visual palette changes completely. Gone is the gray pallor of Scotland, replaced by sunny Ibiza, where other young tourists have flocked for a spring break right out of MTV. Lanna is enthusiastic about the all-night drinking and random hookups, but Morvern seems driven deeper into a funk, and demands they leave for the countryside. As they make their way to Pamplona, where they come upon the "running of the bulls" almost by happenstance, the clouds seem to part a little for Morvern. (Lanna, on the other hand, can't understand why they're stuck in the "middle of nowhere.") Morvern even has a hilarious meet-and-greet with two enthusiastic publishers, who are incapable of seeing the imposter behind this semi-literate, child-like woman with the cool sunglasses.

Morvern Callar is ultimately about the grieving process, though some viewers are understandably frustrated by a central character who gives off so little emotion and invites so little sympathy. Why should we care? Well, maybe because Morvern is right to feel burned by the bloody mess her boyfriend has left behind. And maybe because characters don't have to be sympathetic to be compelling. Perhaps the best reason to care is Samantha Morton, whose magnetic performance is all suggestion: She isn't given much dialogue, so we have to read in her face the slow thawing as she finally comes to terms with her boyfriend's death. Morvern may be repellent, but Morton is an inviting presence, and she leads the audience through the psychological haze.

So does the carefully chosen soundtrack. Make no mistake: The mix-tape is a genuine love letter from the deceased to Morvern, and the music mirrors her emotional progression. And Ramsay provides some gorgeous imagery to match, as in this dreamy sequence where Morvern floats into a supermarket to the tune of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood's "Some Velvet Morning":

As Morvern strolls around with her Walkman, Ramsay occasionally (and ingeniously) manipulates the soundtrack so we hear the bleed from her earbud headphones. Ultimately, Ramsay suggests, this is her private world, and we only have access to its echoes.

Coming up:

Next week: Irma Vep

March 13: Miami Blues

March 20: Babe: Pig In The City

March 27: They Live