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November 29, 2007 |

By Agent Bedhead | Underappreciated Gems | November 29, 2007 |

My own twisted logic would dictate that, on first blush, Morvern Callar would represent the sort of film — artsy, pretentious, disjunctive — that I immensely dislike. To further these affectations, the movie seems to have forgotten its plot, contains very little dialogue, and — gag me with a free-form spoon — is often described as a very poetic work of cinema. If all of that wasn’t enough, the film differs substantially from its novelized source material as originally created by Scottish author Alan Warner. Lynne Ramsey’s (Ratcatcher) film departs from the novel in almost every regard except for the basic premise, yet she has somehow managed to retain the essential spirit of the novel’s title character and unlikely luminary. Most importantly, the film abandons the novel’s first-person narrative and much of the admittedly baffling Scottish slang, allowing Ramsey to properly project the main character onto the screen. As such, Morvern Callar, as both book and film, is considered a rightful peer of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. In particular, both films share a notably ferocious editing style and an arguably nihilistic undercurrent within their perverse appeal.

Morvern Callar follows the aftermath of a suicide. The film’s title character, excellently played by Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown, Minority Report), is a 21-year-old lassie who lives in a small port town in the Scottish highlands. In the film’s opening scene, Morvern lies prone on the floor next to her boyfriend; she has awakened on Christmas morning to a gruesome discovery. The boyfriend, whose face we never see, has done himself in, and his pool of blood reflects the eerily blinking lights on the couple’s Christmas tree. Nearby, the computer monitor blinks the words, “Read Me.” Morvern’s baby-blue, wide-open and searching eyes scan her boyfriend’s suicide note: “Sorry Morvern. It just seemed like the right thing to do.” The boyfriend, who couldn’t even bother with a handwritten goodbye, has left money and detailed instructions on how to arrange his funeral. In addition, he has asked Morvern to print out his finished novel and send it to a list of publishers on his behalf. She immediately follows none of these instructions, and instead, leaves the boyfriend’s body on the floor. She cries inwardly, paints her toenails, attends a Christmas party, and tells everyone that her boyfriend is “at home — in the kitchen.” Morvern isn’t quite sure how to react to her boyfriend’s suicide, so for the most part, she doesn’t react at all. She goes about her life by aimlessly wandering the desolate streets at night and reporting to her lackluster job during the day. For three days, it’s unclear whether Morvern will ever do anything with her life or, for that matter, if she will do anything about her dead boyfriend’s decaying body.

Morvern doesn’t respond to her boyfriend’s death in the way we’d expect someone to react to a tragedy. What she does do is horrifying by most people’s standards, but very few of us have a proper context for which to apply Morvern’s acts. It’s quite difficult to feel any sympathy for the man who cared so little about his live-in girlfriend that he killed himself on what should be one of the more upbeat moments of any given year. Hell, Morvern is a 21-year old supermarket clerk, and since she was orphaned at an early age, she has no family to speak of. Consequently, she harbors serious abandonment issues and maintains few close connections. Her feelings of alienation grow even stronger after the suicide, and the boyfriend’s body decomposes into an object to be avoided and, eventually, disposed of. She tells no one of the events that have passed, not even her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), who believes anything other than a breakup occurred. Nobody ever questions Morvern’s account of the events surrounding her relationship’s end, so it’s fairly safe to say that the boyfriend led an inwardly private life as well. It’s difficult to tell whether Morvern’s strange and suddenly belligerent actions stem from anger and feelings of revenge or just a disconnected means of survival. But these choices eventually lead to a life-changing trip to Spain on a journey of self-discovery.

The second half of the film abandons the unsaturated blues and grays of the Scottish highlands for the disorienting yellows and oranges of Spain. The film’s extra-temporal flow of events transforms would-be realism into something imperceptibly strange. Morvern possesses an acute ability to sense the macabre or horror in daily life. Quite often, she stops to notice signs of physical decay, such as a worm on a supermarket carrot or swarming insects within a highland stream, which other people appear not to notice. At one point, she appears to vanish from the left side of the screen and suddenly reappears on the right side, as if she herself is a supernatural apparition. Long stretches of silence are interrupted mostly by the film’s soundtrack, which includes Nancy Sinatra, Stereolab, Aphex Twin, Velvet Underground, and Ween, all cleverly folded into a mix tape that was a Christmas gift from the boyfriend. These stretches without dialogue allow the audience to ponder Morvern’s numbness, longing, and desires. Whether she actually misses the dead asshole or enjoys her newfound rootlessness remains unspoken. The mystery isn’t so much about her character as it is about the viewers and their responses to the film. Some might find all the ponderousness acutely tedious, but many others will be fascinated by the odyssey of Morvern’s amoral yet spellbinding character.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma and can be found at

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