Her eyes. I had a hard time watching Morvern Callar without being drawn to Samantha Morton’s eyes, which while they are not in every single shot are impossible not to notice when they do appear. Maybe that is for the best, because to have something that commanding of attention in every shot of a movie would be unbearable. Like Tatsuya Nakadai, all she has to do is look at the camera and you feel something—sometimes empathy, sometimes dread.
In Morvern Callar, Lynne Ramsay’s film named after the character she plays, we look at Morton—or, rather Morvern—and we feel dread and sorrow, because we are looking into the eyes of someone who is spiritually adrift for reasons that are deliberately difficult to decipher. She wakes up early one morning on the floor of her Glasgow flat, next to her boyfriend’s corpse. Sometime earlier that night he killed himself and left her the contents of his bank account, a novel (“I wrote it for you,” his suicide note says), and her Christmas gifts. It comes as some measure of her spiritual bankruptcy that she seems more interested in the gifts than the suicide note, or even the corpse.
She is, in fact, aggressively uninterested in the fact that he is dead, and more interested in the opportunities that his death presents to her. He takes his name off of the novel—after all, he wrote it for her, didn’t he?—substitutes her own, prints it out, and submits it to the list of publishers he provided. There is more than enough money in his bank account for a burial, but she leaves the body on the floor until it begins to decompose (after which she dismembers it in the tub and destroys the pieces). We have to ask: are these the acts of someone who is morally bankrupt, or someone who has been nursing a great deal of unspoken animosity?
The movie gives us no direct information about the young man, or why he killed himself, but there are clues. For one, the deepest connection between him and Morvern—aside from this novel he penned for her, for which she doesn’t seem to have any feelings other than as a tool to turn a quick buck—is music, in the form of mix-tapes he created for her. If shared popular culture was the deepest thing between them, then it’s not likely there was much there to begin with—and not very likely that there could have been much of anything else to come, either. Therefore, if their lives together were such a void, his death probably came more as a relief to her than anything else.
There are other elements, and now that I think about it the movie operates almost entirely in the form of these subtle clues. Morvern has a dead-end job in a local supermarket, which contrasts rather sharply with the relatively good-looking apartment she shared with her boyfriend. He has the money, and she is simply inhabiting his space like a placeholder: “Girlfriend.” After his death, she tries to enjoy a night out at a wild party with her friend Lanna, but it seems more out of a sense of personal obligation than anything else. This is what people do when they have a weight lifted off their shoulders, so why doesn’t it feel good? Maybe she is only now discovering for the first time that nothing really feels good to her, that her freedom is just another prison sentence because she cannot escape from her own ennui. She and Lanna share a bathtub together, in a moment that for other people would constitute lesbian flirtation, but for her just seems to be something else to do.
Later, a publisher writes back to her with an advance check for the novel. It’s more money than she knows what to do with, and come to think of it, so was the “payout” from her boyfriend’s death. And in the same vein as the all-night party, she buys a package vacation in Spain for her and Lanna. There they go and booze it up and flirt with the local boys, but Morvern seems to have done this more to throw herself into an empty, unknown space than anything else. There are many scenes late in the film that bring to mind Antonioni’s similar excursions by the bored and disaffected into alien places, but they are matched with psychological insights: At one point she and Lanna get very lost, and she abandons her friend—and based on what we’ve seen, that may simply be because wherever she goes or who she ends up with, she knows she will be alone anyway.
There is something I should emphasize. Everything I have said about this film is based on my own reading of it — that Morvern is like this, or that her boyfriend killed himself because of that, and so on. One of the strengths of the movie is that it does not give us any one, single, closed-ended factual answer to any of its questions. Not every movie can pull that off, and there are many people who do not like this film on general principles. They find it boring or pretentious, or they ask, why should we bother spending upwards of two hours watching someone like Morvern Callar?
I can only say that perhaps they went in looking for the wrong things, and didn’t pay attention to what was really on screen. Movies are best at imparting feelings and less so at defending ideas, which is why some of the best movies are about nothing more than an ambience. Morvern Callar is about walking a few miles in the skin of this pitiable young woman, and that is all that’s needed. If that experience leaves us feeling empty, imagine how she feels having to live like that.