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Carnival of Soulfulness: Samantha Morton lives the vague life as 'Morvern Callar' in Lynne Ramsay's film.

Pain in Spain

'Morvern Callar' floats through life with a haunting vision of mooniness

By Richard von Busack

CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED, but why? Lynne Ramsay's film Morvern Callar seems to hover between the real and the surreal, and the real seems better. The partying life of Morvern (Samantha Morton) and her mate Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) looks authentic, as in one early moment in the zone between Christmas and New Year's. The two take a long walk home on some damp morning road after an all-night party, in laddered stockings, high heels and bruised legs. Such are the days and nights of the oddly named Morvern Callar, who works a cashier at a Scottish supermarket.

In the opening, she wakes up (on the floor) on Christmas morning next to her dead boyfriend, James, who killed himself for indeterminate reasons. ("It seems like the right thing to do," says his suicide note.) Some reviews have speculated that James committed suicide to draw attention to his unpublished novel, though the self-slain novelist hasn't even gone to the effort to go harvest rejection slips on the work.

Many cultures have taboos about leaving dead people lying around the flat, but Morvern instead goes on with her life, covering the corpse with a sheet and spraying air freshener around. The deceased left money for a funeral; Morvern embezzles it and books a package tour to Spain for her and Lanna. The trip goes badly. Lanna confesses to having slept with James once. The beach hotel in Spain---an ominous desert high-rise seemingly designed by J.G. Ballard--is full of noisy carousers. Lanna dives right in, but the alienated Morvern heads off into the countryside to try to see the less touristy Spain. Meanwhile, a bit of fabulous good luck is about to strike.

Morvern Callar recalls some of the films by Anzac female directors of the 1980s--particularly Jane Campion's Sweetie, in which the vibe is more important that the plot. The intensity of blocked-up Morvern makes the film a species of feminist horror; the film would fit cozily on a double bill with Carnival of Souls. Lanna herself finally has enough: "I'm sick of your stupid moods," she tells Morvern, and I choked back an urge to applaud. The Scots accents are thick, almost to the point of requiring Ken Loach-style subtitles; the deliberate jarring, eliding cuts keep the viewer off balance; and the last stroke of good luck is akin to sugaring a plate of liver and onions. And the first laugh in the film doesn't arrive until 40 minutes in.

But Morvern Callar has something tough to it, such as the last shot of Morvern swimming through the stew of humanity at a disco, the flashing lights reflecting off Morton's ostrich-egg-like head. (Characters who float through life are what Morton does best; she was soaking in it for most of Minority Report as the crack-baby sibyl Agatha.) Morton's at one with such haunting visions of mooniness as Björk in Dancer in the Dark and Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves; all three performances must really make some sensitive people think, "This is what my inner child looks like."


Morvern Callar (Unrated; 97 min.), directed by Lynne Ramsay, written by Ramsay and Lianna Dognini, based on the novel by Alan Warner, photographed by Alwin H. Kuchler and starring Samanta Morton and Kathleen McDermott, plays at the Towne Theater in San Jose.


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From the January 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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