by Jeffrey M. Anderson
Lanna: "Where are we going?"
Morvern: "Somewhere beautiful."
Poor Morvern Callar does spend most of Morvern Callar looking for beauty, but instead she finds only death. Death surrounds her; she has death on the brain.
It all starts when her boyfriend kills himself at Christmastime in Scotland. Morvern (Samantha Morton) traces her fingers along his skin, perhaps feeling it grow cold. She carefully opens his Christmas presents to her, examining each one as if it were some alien object -- a leather jacket, a cigarette lighter, a Walkman and a tape called "Music For You."
She pulls a few bills out of his back pocket, selects what she needs, slides the rest back and whispers, "Sorry."
Without saying a word to anyone, Morvern meets her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). They go to a party and get drunk, but Morvern can't shake the death cloud from her shoulders. Later, she discovers a completed novel that her boyfriend left on the computer, with a note and a list of potential publishers. She erases his name, types her own, and mails it off.
The boyfriend has also left money for a funeral. Instead she chops the body up, buries it in a field, cleans the floor and uses the money to travel to Spain with Lanna.
Even there, Morvern can't shake death. While Lanna has fun flirting with boys of all types, Morvern connects only with a morose fellow whose mother has just died. The two make love and the next morning Morvern wakes up with the urge to move on.
Based on the novel by Alan Warner, director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) uses the plot only as backbone for her film, while in most movies the plot is the end-all, be-all. Ramsay is more interested in the two characters and what they're thinking and feeling at any given moment.
This leads to long, almost completely silent moments showing Morvern in deep thought. To aid these scenes, Ramsay uses the ultra-cool music on the mix tape -- the wide range of music includes Stereolab, Can, Ween, the Velvet Underground and the Mamas and the Papas.
One striking moment has Morvern at a dance club. The music grinds away with almost no discernable beat -- it's just noise. Morvern floats through the crowd, red lights flashing on her face from time to time, and yet she's all alone. Ramsay doesn't allow any other human face into the shot.
But Morvern Callar is ultimately a hopeful film. Morvern's condition improves. Four times we see her involved with insects of some kind, and the death inherent with these creatures grows less and less over the course of the film.
At her dreary supermarket job, she touches a maggot eating away at a rotted potato. When burying her boyfriend's corpse, she immerses her hands in stagnant water, populated by creepy crawly worms. A beetle in her Spanish hotel room leads her to her destined lover. And finally -- near the film's end -- an ant crawls on her hand in the Spanish sun.
Ramsay is one of a few gifted filmmakers who make poems rather than tell stories. The mood of Morvern Callar is always more important than what just happened or what will happen next. Only the present moment matters. Ramsay's Ratcatcher has haunted me since I first saw it two years ago, and now I'm convinced that she's a major talent in world cinema.
It helps that Samantha Morton, one of the half-dozen greatest actresses in the world today, plays the lead. Morton, whose films include Under the Skin, Jesus' Son, Sweet and Lowdown and Minority Report, always relies on sheer instinct more than rational thought. As a result, she's completely unguarded, and every moment is painfully, beautifully genuine. She gives the female performance of the year in this film.
And while Morton is a great talent, it reflects well upon Ramsay that co-star McDermott has no acting experience at all. Both women are superb.
Morvern Callar can be a baffling experience -- mostly because the Scottish accents can be hard to decipher at times -- but it's a film that demands total emotional openness. If viewers can give that much, rewards will come back tenfold.
DVD Details: The disc, from Palm Pictures, comes with both 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks, a making-of documentary and the trailer. Sadly, no commentary track by the talented Ms. Ramsay. And, yes, that's me quoted on the back of the DVD box.