Lynne Ramsay’s hypnotic Morvern Callar (2002) is an essential work of twenty-first-century cinema whose hold on me has only grown over the years. Set in a small port town in Scotland, it tells the story of the title character (fearlessly played by Samantha Morton), a young supermarket clerk whose boyfriend, a troubled writer, commits suicide. He leaves her instructions for shopping his unpublished novel and funds for his burial, but instead of honoring his final wishes, Morvern impulsively submits the manuscript under her own name, dismembers and buries his body, and spends the money on a drug-fueled holiday in Spain with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott).
The film’s disaffected working-class youth, resolute regionalism, and hand-held location photography suggest its kinship with a venerable tradition of British realist cinema, but Ramsay is less interested in documenting reality or offering social commentary than in capturing the visceral, sensuous, and ultimately mysterious experience of human existence. Morvern Callar is a character study, but it’s also a mood piece, a tone poem, and an ode to the unknowability of another person. Its greatest achievement, in my view, is the balance it strikes between immersing us in its protagonist’s world and preserving her inscrutability.
Ramsay takes pains to ensure that Morvern remains an enigma. She drops the first-person narration of the Alan Warner novel upon which the film is based, denying us insight into the character’s (often questionable) actions. Morvern’s opacity is reinforced by Morton’s largely mute performance, and her elusiveness is suggested by strobing lights and slips in camera focus. At the same time, Ramsay plunges us into Morvern’s reality. The character’s experiences are rendered with hallucinatory vividness, in tactile detail. Her headspace is evoked through jump cuts, slow motion, and the ambient music she listens to on her portable cassette player.
Throughout the film, sometimes in the space of a single scene, we’re pulled close to Morvern and then pushed away again. When it ends, we don’t feel like we truly know her, but we’re left with the indelible impression of a woman in the throes of a personal awakening. Morvern Callar is a masterpiece of what might be called “ecstatic” realism—subjective, embodied, and transcendental.
Ian Olney is a professor of film studies at York College of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on European cinema and the horror film. His books include Zombie Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2017), Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture (Indiana University Press, 2013), and (with Antonio Lázaro-Reboll) The Films of Jess Franco (Wayne State University Press, 2018).