Everything is still, except for the blinking Christmas tree lights. It’s relentless that light. Near the decorated tree lies a body, face down. Blood from his slashed wrists spatters the floor. And next to him, so close and still that at first she seems dead as we, lies his girlfriend, Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton). She’s discovered his body this Christmas morning. And now she’s unable to move.
Lynne Ramsay’s astonishing Morvern Callar, which she and Liana Dognini adapted from Alan Warner’s 1995 novel, doesn’t tell you much about Morvern’s thinking. As embodied by the stunning Samantha Morton, who appears to be making a career of playing opaque, luminescent characters (see also: the mute girlfriend in Sweet and Lowdown, the dead girlfriend in Jesus’ Son, and the gifted, watery pre-cog in Minority Report), Morvern is equal parts fragile and coarse. Her eyes take in everything, limpid and deep, revealing a kind of rawness that’s hard to read.
Morvern is a puzzle the film picks at but never quite solves, the focus of its probing but also respectful attention. She hardly speaks, and the film observes her, without recourse to some typical device, like a voiceover. You’re left to your resources, much as she is. Morvern cries when she’s alone, for instance, in the tub, her body crumpled and turned away from the hovering camera. Perhaps feeling she has nowhere to go, unsure what she wants, Morvern persists, game somehow, or maybe just numb. Perhaps daunted, briefly, perhaps scheming a way to survive. Occasionally, she looks over at the body, still lying in the doorway to the kitchen, and her eyes go wide, as if wondering what she might do about it.
That evening, Christmas night, she opens her brightly wrapped presents, alone in the room with the body. She has a leather jacket, a lighter, a walkman, and a mixtape assembled by her lover, “Music For You.” Each object might say something about her dead boyfriend, maybe even about her. She flicks the lighter, then puts on the headphones and listens, the tracks simultaneously merging with and disguising her feelings, so that they seem to translate her shock, grief, and anger, but then again, maybe they don’t: Can’s “I Want More,” Aphex Twin’s “Goon Gumpas,” Boards Of Canada’s “Everything You Do Is A Balloon.” Fragmented and throbbing, the music fills the soundtrack, as Morvern gives herself over to it.
She dresses up and heads to a party with her vibrant friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). When someone asks after Morvern’s “Dostoevsky,” she says only that he’s home, in the kitchen, not exactly a lie. They dance, get high, exchange looks with pretty boys. When a couple of girls strip off their bras in the crowd, Morvern looks away in embarrassment. But later that evening, when she and Lanna go carousing with a couple of boys in their car, she hangs out the window and turns her face to the rushing night air: wordless and exultant.
Separated from the group as they continue to party in the woods, Morvern stands at the side of a river, briefly caught by the flashlight beam of a passing boatman: she lifts her skirt, shows her panties and garters. The iris of light stays on her as the boat moves on, until she drops her skirt again. This wordless exchange, at a distance, sets the limit of Morvern’s self-exposure—a bit of pale flesh, glimpsed from the perspective of someone you can hardly see and will never know.
After a night of partying, and some dull, or dulling, sex, the girls walk to visit Lanna’s grandmother, stooped in her walker, happy to have company. She scoots the girls into a tub for a good soak; here Morvern tells Lanna her boyfriend is “gone” and never coming back, without explaining what that means. He’s in “another country,” she says, barely, as if putting ideas—lies or just abstractions—into words will secure the finality of his act, and her abandonment.
Morvern resists this sense of abandonment by staying in motion. She’s found a note on the computer: “Sorry Morvern. Don’t try to understand. It just seemed like the right thing to do.” Whether or not she does try is hard to tell. Though he’s left money for his funeral, Morvern disposes of the body herself, dismembering it in the bathtub as the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You” perks along in her headphones. “Cause I’m made out of glue,” she hears, framed in the narrow bathroom doorway, sunglasses protecting her eyes from the spurting blood. It’s a stunning scene, but so muted and unsensational in its presentation that you’re hard put to know how to react.
Morvern makes another choice, to use the funeral money to take Lanna on a trip to Spain. On the road, the girls leave behind, for a short time anyway, their grinding jobs at a Glasgow supermarket. But while the vacation—a package including hotel rooms and sunny days poolside—delights Lanna, it leaves Morvern cold. As Morvern comes to understand herself more, the girls grow apart. The camera studies the natives, but like Morvern, never gets close.
In part, Morvern’s ostensible development, almost imperceptible, begins when she makes a surprising choice, given her seeming lack of ambition—she has, after all, worked at the supermarket for some time, and her life appears stable, if dull. Now, she feels suddenly rootless, or so it appears. Staring into the computer screen, she puts her name on dead boyfriend’s just completed novel. With the Christmas lights still blinking in the background, she deletes his name from the computer screen, tap by tap, and puts hers on the cover page before she prints it out and sends off to the first name on the list of publishers he’s assembled.
With this strange, fateful, even aggressive decision, she makes a change. Whatever her relationship was with the dead boy, she now acts as if she perceives the body as an object; whether this means she misses him terribly or feels abruptly loosed by its appearance (and what kind of a note is that to leave someone?), the film doesn’t explain.
And yet, with Morvern’s appropriation of his manuscript and erasure of his name, the film opens up another set of questions, concerning authorship and authority, deceit and fiction, longing and focus. Like Ramsay’s first feature, Ratcatcher, and her prize-winning short films (a trilogy, included on Criterion’s gorgeous Ratcatcher DVD), Morvern Callar defers to surfaces, allows viewers to “know” what and how they might. Morvern’s not so much an enigma as a reflection, of a set of moments and desires that have as much to do with you as with her.