Has Anyone Seen this Girl?

By Chris Darke

has-anyone-seen-this-girl-1.jpgMorvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay, 2002

Lynne Ramsay and Morvern Callar: the chronicle of a disappearance

“I wound the video of The Passenger forward to the bit where his wife is watching the news film of the firing squad on the beach. You could tell it was actual. After they shot, the nerves or something made the slouched man’s face slowly look up. I rewound that bit and watched the whole film to its sad end.” – Alan Warner, Morvern Callar

I watched Lynne Ramsay’s film Morvern Callar twice over the course of a month. The first viewing was at the Curzon Soho for the film’s West End opening, which got off to a less than auspicious start. The cinema was roughly a quarter-full and the screening was half an hour late in starting. Someone, we were informed, had dropped the projection reel. A few prospective viewers sloped off to the bar, disgruntled, and stayed there. The remainder of the paltry opening-night audience, a happy few, stuck with it all the way through to the film’s strange, ambiguous end and stayed sitting through the credits, stilled. Hypnotised.

By the second screening, weeks later, ‘Morvern’ had pretty much gone to ground. She was to be found, in sadly reduced circumstances, cowering on the handkerchief-sized screen of the Odeon Wardour Street. The couple sitting behind me, BAFTA-types, didn’t take to her one bit and were loudly broadcasting their hostility. “But there’s no script,” they bleated. “This is crap!” I found myself half agreeing with them. True, the script wasn’t really there. The film had committed the unpardonable sin of not using its images to illustrate its screenplay. Worse still, this was a film ‘based on’ a prize-winning novel that had not chosen to play safe by ‘adapting’ Alan Warner’s story for the screen (leave that to Andrew Davies’s TV-franchise of the A Level Eng. Lit. syllabus: well-dressed, well-decorated and altogether dead). Lynne Ramsay’s take on Morvern Callar is a considerably riskier approach in that it’s truly cinematic. It is emphatically not the ‘story’ of Morvern Callar. It is the character as inhabited and expressed by the resources of cinema. The French seem to have understood this implicitly in choosing to title the film Le Voyage de Morvern Callar, and there are two journeys undertaken here – from novel to film and from death to new life.

Morvern Callar tells the story of a young female Scottish supermarket worker (played by a luminously vacant Samantha Morton) whose boyfriend commits suicide and leaves the manuscript of an unpublished novel to her. Near the beginning of the film, on the screen of the his computer (he’s already dead and Morvern steps carefully, tenderly over his bloody corpse), we read one declaration – ‘I Love You’ – and two injunctions – ‘Read Me’ and ‘Be Brave’. The first of these doesn’t only instruct Morvern to read the manuscript but also instructs the audience to attempt to ‘read’ the mysterious character of Morvern herself. However, as a friend astutely pointed out, it also brings to mind the instruction that Lewis Carroll’s Alice saw on the bottle of magic potion – ‘Drink Me’ – from which she sipped in her Adventures in Wonderland. We, too, are present at the onset of a similar transformation. Be Brave? It’s a classically Existentialist injunction to Morvern (as well as being a further nudge to the audience in their viewing and a declaration of intent from the director to herself) to do what she desires, to go all the way, in the knowledge that she is ‘loved’ from beyond the grave. Ramsay makes sure we notice the significance of these words – they have almost the status of inter-titles in what is, at least in terms of the lack of emphasis on dialogue, a quasi-‘silent’ film, by according each phrase a full-screen close-up.

And Morvern does just as she’s instructed. Substituting her own name for her boyfriend’s, she becomes the ‘author’ of his text and mails the manuscript off to a publisher. So she steps through the looking glass into ... an Antonioni film. There’s more than a few features of Morvern Callar that recall Antonioni, that almost make the film The Passenger for the Prozac Generation, not least in its identity-swap and flight to Southern Spain (in which Morvern is ‘re-born’ in the rave clubs of the Mediterranean coast). Then there’s the sense that Ramsay is experimenting with an Antonionian image-poetic in which the camera’s point-of-view lends itself to interpretation as the perspective of a ‘missing person’. Like The Passenger and L’Avventura before it, Morvern Callar is the chronicle of a disappearance – Morvern from her life as a supermarket worker into one of hedonism and ambiguous freedom. But, in the process, Morvern becomes as ghostly as her dead boyfriend. But she’s our ghost, the spectator’s own projection, and Samantha Morton – with her extraordinary satellite-dish blankness – receives and projects back what the audience requires of her. This facility is what endows Morton with such a powerfully enigmatic screen presence, akin to that of the great actresses of silent cinema. It’s little wonder that Spielberg, in an inspired piece of casting, had her play a Delphic mute in Minority Report.

passenger-michelangelo-antonioni.jpgThe Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975

Warner’s the ‘dead’ author in the novel. He sacrifices himself, in a way, to bring Morvern to life, puts himself bleeding on the scullery floor of their shared flat and endows her with his stuff – his CDs and videos, his taste in films and music. If you doubt this, check out Warner’s thoroughgoing fixation with the great Seventies German avant-rock outfit Can. Almost every other page of the novel references them and their founder-member, Holger Czukay, is one of those to whom the book is dedicated. If, in the novel, Warner makes himself vanish twice, once into the figure of the dead (writer-) boyfriend and next into the extraordinarily vivid first-person narrative voice of Morvern herself, it’s far harder to carry this approach over into film.

Ramsay opts for a different, highly cinematic, solution. She personifies the camera and makes Morvern Callar a work full of thresholds. And, in so doing, she gives us Morvern as a being-in-transition, a girl-in-progress. Consider how many times we see her in corridors, on balconies, at windows or framed in a doorway. Almost every time we see her in a car she’s leaning out of the window, head in the wind: half-in, half-out. Then consider how Ramsay emphasises this approach through her use of sound and music. The film’s musical soundtrack is just that, a literal soundtrack supplied in the shape of a cassette left to Morvern as a gift by her dead boyfriend. When Morvern listens to this music, Ramsay either cuts abruptly just before a melody starts to crystallise or a rhythm takes root or, very insistently, ‘fades’ the music from being the major element of the soundtrack to being experienced as a kind of ambience emanating from the headphones of Morvern’s walkman. Is this the director’s nod in the direction of a similar treatment of sound (and theme) in Agnès Varda’s Sans Toit ni Loi? Consider how, in Varda’s film, Mona listens to a tape of (what else?) The Changeling by The Doors. It makes sense. There’s little doubt that Ramsay is a filmmaker who would not only know such works but would also – and this is a mark of her talent – be able to allude to them in ways that enrich the textures of her own story and themes.

Finally, there’s another threshold, the clincher, it seems to me, in terms of validating the Antonioni reference when it comes to the film’s particular camera-poetics and the curious sense of ‘ghostliness’ that results from this approach. The threshold that’s crossed here, is the ‘fourth wall’ of the screen itself. There are at least two moments in the film when Morton-as-Morvern breaches that divide and looks straight at the camera. At us. And at ‘him’, the dead boyfriend, the ghost. The first time, she’s in the bath after having discovered his dead body. The second, she encounters another young man in an adjoining hotel room. Both moments, one close to the opening, the other towards the end, bookend the film. Ghosts. Missing Persons. Invisibility. A strange and compelling fact - of the sociological variety - came to mind while watching Morvern turn ghost-like in the dance-clubs of Southern Spain. The 2001 UK Census revealed, remarkably, that nearly a million people have gone ‘missing’ from the population, “largely due to the untracked movements of men in their 20s and 30s heading abroad for work or extended raves in the Mediterranean sun.”[1] Morvern, who is at least in part under an identity assumed from her boyfriend, is herself one of these ‘missing’. Wasn’t it Cocteau who described cinema as ‘the art of ghosts’? In Morvern Callar Ramsay has taken him at his word and it’s intriguing to learn that next, she will take on Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones, a story narrated by a dead girl.


[1] John Carvel: “Missing, Probably on a Rave: the Million Who Have Left a Hole in the UK’s Population Tally", in The Guardian, 1 October, 2002.

Chris Darke is a writer and critic. His essay collection Light Readings is published by Wallflower Press.