Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:14 pm 
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Offbeat followup to 'Ratcatcher'

Lynne Ramsey's 1999 debut, 'Ratcatcher,' was a minute examination of a couple of working class Scottish kids (and the adults surrounding them) during a big strike in the 70's. Its gritty detail made such a strong unique impression that her future work was eagerly awaited, and 'Morvern Callar' comes with excited praise from many quarters.

In this second outing Ramsey is working from a 1995 Scottish cult novel by Alan Warner, and her adaptation is all about improvisation. It trades the minute detail of 'Ratcatcher' for an offbeat, psychedelic jazz style that is uneven, but certainly unlike anything else you're likely to see this year. That there are some really memorable moments is an accomplishment in what is largely a road movie involving two directionless and empty- headed young women.

The eponymous heroine (Samantha Morton) herself improvises, since when her writer boy friend commits suicide at Christmastime, leaving a finished novel manuscript for her in his computer with a farewell note, she chooses to send it off to a publisher under her own name.

The first thing we notice is that she doesn't know what to do with her boyfriend's corpse that's lying on the floor between the kitchen and the living room, and for some time she just leaves it there. Morvern is a young woman whose personality defines itself to us as much by what she doesn't do as by what she does. The body with the Christmas tree blinking near it is a sign of her indecision, but also of her complete independence of normal rules. Eventually, like some spaced-out Patricia Highsmith villain, she carts the now dismembered body up to the hills in a pack on her back -- she must be a sturdy girl indeed -- and buries it without telling a soul. (Here we can't help thinking of the Scottish 'Shallow Grave' and the relatively great fun and excitement that movie generates out of such a sequence. The meandering "Morvern Callar" doesn't have as much momentum. But we hang on just to see what will come next.)

Miss Callar takes the cash her boyfriend has left in a bank for his funeral and goes off with her grocery store coworker Lanna (lively first-time actress Kathleen McDermott) on a quick holiday in Spain using the dead boyfriend's credit card. The publishing house has accepted the book at this point and Morvern tells them by phone that she's off to Spain.

Already there have been a series of scenes of two main types: brightly colored, spacey pub and dance sequences, and uneventful, documentary-like visits to grandmothers - Morvern's and her girlfriend's. This sets the style of the movie, which is to have little or no dialogue but lots of music and emphatic visuals, some psychedelically bright and others grimly drab.

Just as well for the non-Brit in the audience that the girls do little talking, since when they do they're only half intelligible. Whether they're speaking with a Scottish accent or just poor diction is obscure at times. The frustration of "Morvern Callar" is that it's got something very fresh and unexpected about it, but it's also clumsy and hard to follow.

Cinematographer Alwin Kucher has a vivid, intense style here (he worked more poetically in 'The Claim' and 'Ratcatcher'). There are somewhat cruel close-ups of Samantha naked in the bath and of the girls' laughing or affectless faces, and then the bright ugliness of cheap flats and store interiors fades into the garish look of the factory-like Spanish resort hotel and the countryside -- the latter often shown through an irritatingly obvious dark yellow filter. After partying wildly again at the big hotel and shacking up with two boys separately, the young women are off at Morvern's insistence in a cross-country cab driven by a gypsy. They wind up in Pamplona at bull-run time and get lost from each other twice.

Finally Molvern heads off by herself, calls the publishing house, and meets with its dorky representatives in Spain. She poses as the author of the novel with comic ineptness -- she has nothing slick to say and again the movie is more notable for what is not expressed, but the small amount of dialogue here makes a strong impression, as does Morton's raw openness. As the movie ends, Molvern has a large check from the publisher but nowhere to go to spend it.

Ramsey's scenes are enormously vivid on the whole but sometimes seem so dingy or bright or rough -- or simply meaningless, tossed off as affectlessly as the actions of Morvern's own impulsive life -- that they don't always make a good impression or even a clear one. Nonetheless the novel's basic premise works and once Morvern embarks on her deception about the manuscript the story finally gains confidence. It's touch and go up to then whether this movie is cool or just clumsy. Unfortunately it was difficult not to think of another recent road picture of young people on a lark, 'Y Tu Mamá Tambièn,' and the comparison highlights the limitations of Ramsey's effort -- but also its raw edginess. This is not an improvement over 'Ratcatcher,' though, despite Ms. Morton's star quality. Lynne Ramsey was more effective working realistically, with the limitations imposed by sociology and history and the extra sympathy required to depict the world of a child. The wildness of 'Molvern Callar's' style isn't ultimately altogether convincing. Claims by some critics that this movie is hypnotic or trance-like, or that it's the most adventurous, emotionally raw movie of the year, make too much of the long musical interludes and lack of dialogue. The heroine's mind is pretty empty and that leaves one cold after a while. Nonetheless, Lynne Ramsey still is a young director to watch.

January 19, 2003

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