Morvern Callar and the refusal of sentimentality


By Lydia Rostant

Lynne Ramsay challenges cinema’s obsession with sentimentality in her ecstatic portrayal of loss and desire.

In Lynne Ramsay’s 2002 film Morvern Callar, the titular Morvern uses her dead boyfriend as a purse. She needs cash for the pub, so, naturally she retrieves a wad of notes from his jeans, as he lies inconveniently on the kitchen floor. It is a moment devised of with equal elements of the uncanny and macabre, and establishes the tone for the rest of the film, as the audience is confronted with a thrilling refusal of sentimentality. 

Morvern Callar was Ramsay’s second feature film, and while you may be more familiar with her recent work (We Need to Talk about Kevin, 2011 and You Were Never Really Here2017), her early filmography is a calling card for her fearless and emotionally-deft handling of challenging themes.

Based on the 1995 novel by Alan Warner and adapted for screen by Ramsay, the film is described as a ‘poetic realism’ piece (Patrick Nabarro, One Room with a View) starring Samantha Morton. It is Morton’s recognisably refined features on the movie poster, her upturned face and strands of hair rendered in ominous red.

From the offset, Ramsay invites the audience to flex their deductive muscles, as the narrative context remains unclear. The opening sequence is episodic and littered with the furnishings of domestic bliss – the blinking Christmas lights, a weakly-lit computer screen, a dormant microwave. Where the sentimental may rush to instil these items with symbolism, Ramsay instead strong-arms us into Callar’s subjectivity through a sequence of tight shots, negating our authorial impulse. 

A tricky beginning

The film follows the enigmatic Morvern Callar as she discovers her dead partner, followed by his unfinished manuscript. Replacing his name with her own and profiting off the success of the manuscript, she takes her friend on holiday to Spain and eventually returns home. It is narrative-lite and impact heavy – think the grit of Andrea Arnold with the acerbic realism of Joanna Hogg.

Ramsay plunges the viewer into a world of forged associations, it is Callar’s strange world, that we are merely privy to. The narrative sparseness is exemplified in the opening scene with Callar’s bizarre use of her boyfriend’s corpse. Far from being an attempt to theatrically shock the audience, this scene is a cautionary motif – the film will deal with the pragmatism of loss rather than its sentimentalism.

An emotional camera  

The sporadic, dislocated shots used throughout emulate the organic patterns of thought – especially those disrupted by shock or trauma.

In one scene, Callar stands on an empty train platform, where a pay phone is heard ringing off-screen. The audience is afforded no context, and no logical pay-out – instead we experience these circumstantial elements as our protagonist does – the noise of a train rushing past and the incessant telephone ringing becoming part of an emotional composition curated in the absence of Callar’s psychological transparency. In a landscape of sensations, Callar is resolutely unburdened and unsentimental.

As Callar attempts to find something to eat in her desolate kitchen, the camera lingers lovingly on maggots oozing out of a carrot, before panning off beyond her head. Perhaps this is supposed to conjure images of maggots in her boyfriend’s corpse; but we can only wonder.

In her persistent style, Ramsay allows no easy answers. The film negates its own function as an emotional vessel – the itinerant camera constructing an emotional landscape that is denied by the protagonist herself. 

Travels in death

With the money she receives from the success of her boyfriend’s manuscript, Callar and her friend go to Spain, and usher in a new trope of bizarreness. Spain is garishly bright, depicted by Ramsay as the final frontier of British tastelessness. The girls flirt in a bored and mindless manner, drink champagne on the beach and attend a particularly desolate club called ‘Reverb’. 

But for all the frolicking (which Ramsay presents in a hardboiled, athletic manner) there is a healthy dose of attending nihilism. Callar seems lost, as if waiting for something or someone – is she anticipating the arrested trauma of her boyfriend’s death? The action itself is unimportant, and again, it is the subtext afforded by the cinematography that reveals the beating, afflicted heart of the film.

In one scene, Callar is leaning out of a balcony, the wind sending her hair skywards, contrasted against the geometry of the high rises. Ramsay is a director who wields aesthetic beauty like a paring knife – it is precise, lacerating and to be used occasionally and with care.

In the desert

As the girls move away from the hedonism of the resort and into the parched landscape of Northern Spain, so a sense of stasis emerges. Callar is despondent and in the arid desert all symbolism is refuted – the lighter Callar’s dead boyfriend gifted her is broken and discarded. 

If you’d come for sentimentality or facile human bonding, you’d be disappointed. In this wasteland, Morton’s characterisation of Caller takes centre stage. She is at once clinically detached and angelically alert to the world that she encounters, interacting with people in a way that is not cinematically self-serving but genuine to the human experience. Her refusal to sentimentalise Callar makes her at times a prickly, indifferent figure, but prioritises a psychological authenticity that results in an emotional gut punch.

Ramsay manages to both embolden Callar as figure of grief and disillusionment (she hates her job in the supermarket and lives in a bleak seaside town) while also suggesting that her life is enigmatically watchable, and worth watching.

Breaking the fourth wall

In one of the final scenes in Spain, Callar visits a crypt with two of the publicists keen to publish the manuscript. As Callar walks between the whitewashed graves, framed in perfect symmetry, her floral dress complimenting the flowers surrounding her, we are afforded a moment of directorial self-awareness.

Ramsay suggests that we are not unlike the publicists, looking for a story to make beautiful and palatable – an unedited manuscript with Callar as the subject. It would have been so easy for Ramsay to have made this a film about grief, lost love and coming to terms with change. But there is something significant about her rejection of oversentimentality and the conviction with which she suggests Callar’s life is worth watching in its own capacity and without the cheap appeal of emotional theatrics or grand plot designs. 

We leave Callar as we found her, holed up in her seaside town. Is she a changed woman? Ramsay doesn’t dwell on the point. The film both physicalizes the experience of grief and interrogates its normative cinematic presentation, confronting us with the possibility that pain is a nuanced, transient, and in some cases, fleeting experience.

Callar is the opposite of a typical cinematic protagonist, she chooses not to court the camera, but instead creates the persistent and overwhelming sense that we should be enthralled and horrified by her – and we are. She takes the £100,000 cheque and appears not to look back … at least now she has an excuse to get a better purse.