Save the Last Trance


LONDON—As fragmentary, elusive, and brilliantly hued as a kaleidoscope’s pattern, Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar is a hypnotic tone poem on the intersection of grief and hedonism. A largely faithful adaptation of Alan Warner’s slender 1995 novel, Ramsay’s sensuous second feature (opening Friday) evokes a protracted fever dream—one that commences when the title character, a supermarket clerk in a bleak Scottish port town, discovers her boyfriend’s corpse, surreally illuminated by the blinking bulbs of their Christmas tree. He has left behind a suicide note, a few gifts, and his just-completed novel; Morvern, uncannily embodied by Samantha Morton, follows his instructions to send it to a top publisher, with one fateful amendment. “When I read the book, the first thing that really struck me was that she changed the name on her boyfriend’s novel to her own,” says 32-year-old Ramsay, who was born in Glasgow and has lived the past eight years in London. “I thought, Wow, kickass, man. It’s shocking, really punk rock. I’d never seen a young woman depicted like that.”

Warner’s toyings with ideas of authorship also appealed to Ramsay. “Alan kills off the writer on the first page, and the girl from the supermarket takes over,” she sums up approvingly. “The tortured artist completes his life’s work and offs himself—it’s a very selfish act, but Morvern turns it around and uses it for her own survival. But it’s not conscious; I never saw her as a calculating person. Some people think she’s cynical, but I think she’s brave. She’s like a cowboy.” Morvern’s manifest destiny leads her out of monotonous Oban, on Scotland’s western coast, and into a lysergic odyssey through southern Spain, funded by her dead lover’s bank card and, later, the windfall from the sale of his manuscript. “Oban in the book is this mad place where people put acid on their eyeballs, but I wanted to make it very generic—like somebody stuck in nowheresville,” Ramsay says. “The world’s becoming much more homogeneous. An American can easily identify with a girl in Scotland who works a banal job in a mall or a supermarket, living for the crazy weekends. So Morvern’s story is kind of a fairy tale: What would I do with 100,000 quid? Money buys freedom, that’s the hard truth.”

Submerged though she is in a benumbed, near-nihilist trance of sorrow and confusion, Morvern does also experience the strange liberation that loss can trigger—what Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius crystallizes as “having suddenly found oneself in a world with neither floor nor ceiling.” “She’s quite childlike, even naive, and she’s in a state of shock,” Ramsay explains. “We try to get inside her head, to feel that dreaminess and that catatonia, and where it takes her.” Though the movie bids goodbye to Morvern in a teeming, strobe-addled megaclub, Ramsay stresses, “I don’t see this as a rave movie at all, maybe just because that’s the kiss of death. I can’t stand the British ‘club movie,’ all this waving-the-hands-in-the-air stuff. I based the club scenes on photographs I took at a place in Edinburgh—pictures of people who seemed alone among the bodies. It’s supposed to be this blissed-out love thing, but I think there can be an edge to it—people tucked away in their own little bubbles.” Morvern’s isolation chamber takes the form of a Walkman, which forever blasts the mix tape her boyfriend compiled for her: Can, Aphex Twin, Stereolab, and the Lees Hazlewood and “Scratch” Perry. “The music is part of the narrative, like another letter he’s left behind. With a lot of the music, you don’t hear it unless Morvern hears it too.”

Ramsay and co-writer Liana Dognini boldly dispense with the most obvious means of entering Morvern’s mindspace—namely, a voice-over. “Alan’s entire book is an existential interior monologue, but Morvern never explains how she feels, or the reasons behind anything she does. It’s just ‘I did this, I did that’—things you can observe,” Ramsay says. “It’s hard to find ways to empathize with such an enigmatic character, to get on the same level with her emotionally.”

Casting Morvern, of course, presented the first major hurdle. “I thought it was going to be an absolute nightmare to find someone who could play a character who’s so silent and yet compelling enough to carry the whole film,” Ramsay recalls. “I was thinking it might be a nonprofessional.” While interviewing casting directors, however, Ramsay happened upon a photograph: “This was a girl staring out a window, absolutely in another world. It didn’t look like a posed actor’s picture, and it didn’t look like Samantha Morton, either—she’s such a chameleon that it’s hard to recognize her from film to film.” Ramsay decided to go with Morton on the basis of a single meeting. “Sam’s also a foster kid like Morvern, and I believed she would work in a supermarket, but I also felt she came from another planet. I’m sure she’s an alien. She doesn’t perform; she doesn’t concern herself with backstory and what’s-my-motivation; it’s very intuitive. It was a bit like working with a nonprofessional actor.” (Morvern represents a logical culmination of Morton’s roles to date: She portrayed a teenager attempting to exorcise her mother’s death through an intensifying rash of sexual encounters in Under the Skin, a mute in Sweet and Lowdown, and a narcotized oracle in Minority Report.)

For Morvern’s voluble best friend, Lanna, Ramsay did cast a novice—Kathleen McDermott, a trainee hairdresser plucked off a Glasgow street. “She’s really spontaneous, a natural comedienne,” the director says, adding, “There were a few scenes that were hard for her, just in terms of trusting us. When we were shooting the bathtub scene”—Morvern and Lanna wash up after an all-night rager—”I took my jumper off, because I was like, ‘Will it make you feel better if I’m sitting here in my bra?’ ”

Ramsay’s no-frills, often improvisatory directing style is an m.o. she fought hard to maintain on the set of her first feature: A child’s-eye lens on filthy, beleaguered Glasgow during the mid-’70s garbage strikes, Ratcatcher (1999) mingled scathing social realism with daydreamy flights of make-believe. (Two of her earlier short films, Gasman and Small Deaths, won prizes at Cannes, where Morvern Callar premiered in the 2002 Director’s Fortnight.) “When I was doing Ratcatcher, I heard a lot of, ‘Yeah, we really love your short films, but could you just change the whole way you work and cast some name actors?’ I like working with small crews, documentary-style, and I remember thinking, What are all these fucking people doing here? They said, ‘Oh, you’re a first-time director with a first-time crew, you need all the support you can get.’ Every single thing was a battle. I was absolutely exhausted by the end of making that film. I didn’t know if I ever wanted to work on another one.”

Morvern Callar‘s production thankfully left Ramsay with no such resignations. She has nearly completed a second draft of her next script, also an adaptation: Alice Sebold’s Pennsylvania-set bestseller The Lovely Bones chronicles the afterlife of Susie Salmon, a murdered 14-year-old girl. As part of the research process, Ramsay recently took a road trip down the east coast of the U.S., where she interviewed high schoolers about their notions of heaven. She may incorporate their answers into the final film, and is composing a “minimal voice-over” for Susie, inspired in part by Linda Manz’s narration in Days of Heaven.

Intriguingly, The Lovely Bones marks the third time Ramsay has told a story that begins with a terrible end—Ratcatcher pivots on a young boy’s furtive guilt following a friend’s drowning. She’s denies any propensity for life-after-death tales, calling the symmetries “just a coincidence.” Still, in describing Susie Salmon, she could well be invoking Morvern Callar: “She’s in a place where there’s suddenly no consequences, and so she becomes a voyeur of life on earth,” Ramsay says. “Which is, of course, the classic starting point for a filmmaker.”

Related Article:

J. Hoberman’s review of Morvern Callar