Morvern Callar (2002)

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

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Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) is alone with the body of her dead husband when we meet her, but we get the sense she might always have felt this alone.  She stares at him on the ground while the Christmas tree lights softly buzz.  Then she lies next to him.  Then she reads his brief suicide note on the computer.  Then she opens up the presents he meant to give her, and it quickly seems like his death is swept under the rug.

That’s because Morvern’s way of dealing with his death is to ignore it.  She leaves his body where it lies, stepping over it as she wanders through the house, and looks outward, to her friend Lanna, to calm her troubled mind.

There is no plot in this film, and no real resolution.  The only action Morvern takes, regarding the suicide, is to mail her husband’s manuscript to publishers, as per his request, and to chop up his body for disposal once she grows tired of hurdling it every time she needs to go to the kitchen.

She goes to the local pub, to nightclubs and even to Spain to avoid settling down.  We’re led to believe that this is all an attempt at overcoming or at least deflecting her grief, but it’s telling that she never overtly mourns her husband.  The sadness we see at the beginning feels staid, like something that’s been with her for quite some time.  Her husband’s suicide note (“It just seemed like the right thing to do” and “Don’t try to understand”) comes across as disturbingly terse, highlighting perhaps a rift that had been growing between them long before his death.  His note is less about compassion or anything to do with emotion.  Instead it’s a list of chores.

Morvern mails out his manuscript, replacing his name with hers, and eventually she receives interest from a publisher who offers her £100,000.  At this point in the film Morvern’s grief feels unrelated to the suicide and the suicide feels like a lottery ticket, suddenly giving her financial security and an excuse to do whatever she wants.

Morvern is poor.  She works at grocery store in a small town where you get the impression that every dollar (or pound) earned goes towards rent or to the pub.  She’s part of a cycle made permanent by a class struggle.  Her husband’s death, and the money from the manuscript, offer her a chance to travel, and so most of the film follows her as she ventures out of the country with Lanna.

There is something understandably freeing about their journeys to Spain and various, outlandish nightclubs, but throughout it all Morvern reeks of sadness.  She lies to her friend about where her husband has gone, and later her friend brings up the fact that she and Morvern’s husband had an affair, something Morvern was well aware of and hardly reacts to.  None of this is a surprise, in other words, and it’s almost as if all Morvern wants is something new, something to react to.  By this point you really get the impression that she was doomed long before her husband’s death.

Because much of the movie follows Morvern and Lanna on the road, there is a lot of time given to their friendship.  You might expect them to grow closer through this trying time, but they don’t seem to.  Morvern’s lie about her husband’s disappearance and Lanna’s lack of following up, imply there is little intimacy between them.  Can Morvern not talk to her about this or is she simply reluctant to?  Maybe it just doesn’t seem important.

They have their ups and downs, but Morvern’s isolation from the world around her is still evident within this friendship.  The movie ends with them returning back home, to their small town and predictable ways of life.  Morvern tells Lanna that they can keep travelling and never have to worry about money.  Lanna says she wants to stay and that there’s nothing to be found out there that you can’t find right here.  Disappointed, Morvern heads for the train station alone, ready to head wherever her sadness may take her.

Morvern Callar is a lot of things and yet none of those things.  It’s a movie about a man’s death and the illegal disposal of his body, but no one ever comes around asking about him.  There is never any danger that Morvern will be caught and questioned, as you might expect in a crime movie.  For this reason the suicide feels more like a blessing for her than a burden, allowing her the freedom to travel and do as she pleases.

Similarly this is a road trip movie but not really.  In such movies, the main character is meant to leave home and learn about the world and him or herself.  Here Morvern learns nothing except that she can’t go back.

It’s a story about friendship in which the two characters demonstrate that they’re not really friends.

It’s a story about self-determination in which the main character has no better understanding of who she is or what she wants, and the only success she achieves is based on a lie.

Morvern Callar isn’t the most exciting movie, but it doesn’t try to be.  It’s a quiet, sad look at one woman’s doomed life, and through that it’s a story about class structure.  This isn’t something I noticed right away but something critics have noted and Ramsay has commented on in interviews.

From director Lynne Ramsay: “I think that there’s a feeling of escape, of escaping a kind of banality. I think that this is a film about a slightly lost generation. You know, the partygoers, the clubbers — it’s not a club movie at all, but it’s about that kind of disenfranchised youth I suppose, in a way. There’s something quite alone about the club scenes, about the parties…It’s much more selfish for her to want to get away, to
escape the banality. You know what I mean? And money, I think she gets the
money because she thinks it can buy her freedom, but it doesn’t. It does buy
her a sort of freedom, but she’s still alone.”

The movie feels almost improvised, between the handheld camera, silent scenes and overall lack of convention.  It’s documentary-like, in this way, and Morvern Callar is our test subject, someone we watch with the curiosity of a scientist.  She says little, and her facial expressions seem to offer even less.  She appears haunted and occasionally emboldened, but it always feels as thought she’s reacting to her circumstance, rather than emitting any kind of pure emotion.  When she’s sad, it’s a tainted sadness, and when she’s happy the same.  It’s almost like Morvern doesn’t know what sadness is so she’s trying it on for size.  “Is this how I’m supposed to feel?” I can imagine her thinking when she looks at her dead husband.

Morvern is trying to break from the stasis of her life.  It’s important that we never see her discovery of her husband’s body because this never gives us any insight into what her life was like when he was alive.  The way she is in the first scene introduces us to her character and suggests she was always like this.  Her husband’s death isn’t a leap from the status quo, it is the status quo, only now it’s literal rather than figurative.

Up Next: Spartacus (1960), Wag the Dog (1997), The Dirty Dozen (1967)

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