Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Written by: Liana Dognini & Lynne Ramsay based on a novel by Alan Warner.
Starring: Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar), Kathleen McDermott (Lanna).
Movern Callar was critically acclaimed on the festival circuit in 2002, and during its release the following year – and yet I think its reputation has grown even more in the last decade or so – it’s even made the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 acclaimed films of the 21st Century. That makes sense, as Movern Callar is one of those movies that grows in your mind after seeing it. I remember walking out of the film in 2003 confused and a little frustrated by the film. Who was Movern Callar? Why does she never let the audience into her as she does what she does in the film? And yet, the film haunted me – so much so that even though I had not seen the film since until starting this series, it remained remarkably clear in my mind. It is stunning film in a lot of ways – not least because of Samantha Morton’s brilliant performance in the title role. The film gets deeper the more I think about it – I doubt I’ll go another decade before revisiting it again.
The first scene of Movern Callar has her waking up, and finding her boyfriend dead on the floor, his blood pooling, after a suicide. He leaves her a note on the computer – telling her he loves her, but she couldn’t understand why he did what he did. The note also includes instructions for submitting his just completed novel. Movern ignores the body, and the note, for a while and heads out into the night and rides the subway. Eventually, she’ll get together with her best friend – Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) and go out clubbing, eventually ending up at a party, and sex with some anonymous strangers, before Movern and Lanna walk home the next morning – and Movern confesses that her boyfriend is “gone”. She doesn’t say where or how – just that he’s gone. Eventually, she will change the name on her boyfriend’s novel and submits it under her own name. When she can no longer ignore the body on the floor, she takes a saw to it – while listening to the mix tape her boyfriend left for her as a Christmas present – and disposes of it. She uses the money in her boyfriend’s account that he left for his funeral to pay for a holiday to Spain for her and Lanna – which results in more clubbing, more partying, more anonymous sex – before the pair head out into the middle of nowhere and get lost. The publisher calls and offers Movern a generous deal for “her” novel.
That’s the plot of the movie in a nutshell – although the movie doesn’t seem all that interested in plot – certainly not in any sort of linear point a to point b way. Based on that description, you may well think Movern is a sociopath – someone who is unfeeling and doesn’t care for her boyfriend at all. That she is, above all, a selfish monster. Yet, that’s not how the movie plays at all. Much of this is due to Samantha Morton’s brilliant performance as Movern. Morton has one of the more expressive faces in movies – it served her well as the mute love interest in Woody Allen’s Sweet & Lowdown as well as one of the floating psychics in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Here you study her face for some sort of insight into why she does what she does – but it never really comes. Like Ramsay’s previous film, Ratcatcher, if you are expecting a scene where the main character breaks down and finally explains her actions, you’re going to be disappointed. No one ever finds out what Movern did – and the film never explains why she did it. In his review, Roger Ebert speculates that her motivations are based on class – the boyfriend is obviously fairly well off given the apartment they share, and yet Movern still works at the supermarket. The note he leaves her is rather condensing. In Ebert’s view, this was a fairly new relationship, and Movern does what she does to take care of herself. That’s as good of an explanation as any, but doesn’t fully explain everything. There does seem to be an element of class to Movern – she and Lanna seem used to having no money, and the trip to Spain floors Lanna with its extravagance even though the resort the go to is kind a dump. If her boyfriend killed himself, he doesn’t need the money he left behind – or the money his novel would bring. But Movern does. Still, though, I do think there is something deeper behind Movern’s motivations. Her slow break from Lanna – who is seemingly content to continue to revel in their hedonist lifestyle forever, whereas Movern seems to want to go and search for something “more” – starts when Lanna confesses that she once slept with Movern’s boyfriend. Their last scene together, where Movern tells Lanna she’s “going back” to Spain, and invites Lanna along again to which Lanna replies that she’s “happy here” and that Movern should be as well as stop looking for “something more” seals their breakup. Movern is in some bizarre sort of mourning – one that she lets no one else in on. Morton’s performance is mesmerizing simply because it never quite lets us inside. Her face has a haunted look to it though, one that suggests deep pain while at the same time appearing perfectly normal to someone not paying attention. I’m not quite sure how Morton did this, but it is a brilliant piece of screen acting.
The film is a bold, stylistic step forward for Ramsay as well. She has always made films from one characters point of view – from her shorts, to Ratcatcher and on to We Need to Talk About Kevin – and here she does the same basic thing for Movern, except her interior world remains closed off from us. A decade ago when I saw the film I was confused and frustrated – and I expect many viewers still would be. They want closure, they want an answer to all the questions Movern Callar raises, as a movie, and as a character, and Ramsay’s film and Morton’s performance don’t give us that. I found that frustrating 11 years ago, but find it oddly exhilarating now. Any answers Ramsay could give would seem disappointing compared to what we read into Movern as we watch the film. I didn’t think that much of Movern Callar 11 years ago. I love it now.