Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Palm Pictures DVD
During Sofia Coppola’s acceptance speech upon receiving the 2003 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, she thanked — not just acknowledged as an influence, but outright thanked — Michelangelo Antonioni. It is not often that Antonioni’s name is trotted out at the Oscars. In fact, I would wager a guess that it is the first time it has happened since Antonioni himself got his honorary Oscar nearly a decade ago. From watching Coppola’s films, however, one gets the sense that the venerable Italian auteur is more of an inspiration than an influence. Coppola does not yet seem comfortable enough with the idea that people are essentially alone in the world, despite gestures in that direction in her most recent film, the superb Lost in Translation. There are perhaps two directors working these days who seem to have embraced Antonioni’s credo enthusiastically: the Taiwanese director, Edward Yang (who seems to be doomed forever to be considered the second-best director in Taiwan after Hou Hsiao-Hsien) and the Scots director, Lynne Ramsay.
Like Coppola, Ramsay is a young woman with two features, a handful of shorts, and a mantle full of awards to her name. They also share an unbelievably good taste in music. Their first features both focused on a seemingly doomed group of kids, their second on a young woman adrift amongst her thoughts in a strange land. Unfortunately for Ramsay, her most recent film, Morvern Callar, did not have the good fortune to be the indie hit of the year and did not gross $42 million on a budget of less than a tenth of that sum. Morvern Callar quietly toured the festival circuit during the spring of 2002, quietly opened theaters in major towns in the following autumn, and quietly slipped into video stores early this year. It is probably a fitting release pattern for a film that is quiet, internal, subtle, and very personal, but it is not encouraging from a business standpoint. But good art does not always make for good business, and vice versa, and Morvern Callar is good art.
It is difficult to describe the film because so much of the effectiveness of the film is not tied up in its loose narrative but in its lingering shots of its lead character lost in thought and in its insistence on inviting us into her head yet keeping us at an arm’s length just the same. The film is essentially about the idea that we can never know what goes on inside another person’s head and so the visual and narrative style of the film is to underscore that idea. There is no first-person voice over, there is no omniscient narrator telling us how Morvern is feeling or why she is doing what she does. In fact, most of her actions seem to have no apparent direct motive. In the hands of lesser talents than Lynne Ramsay and her gifted star, Samantha Morton, this approach could have led to a film that was an absolutely incomprehensible disaster, but Morvern Callar is assured and confidently-made, even as the emotions of the title character seem brittle and crystalline.
Audiences who want every action of a character explained and every thought accounted for will most likely hate Morvern Callar. Those who do not mind getting a little lost for a while with someone who probably would not be able to explain her actions or account for her thoughts very often will most likely love it. Upon seeing it for the first time, I was not quite sure what I thought of it. I was pretty sure I liked it, but I could not explain why. As the days went on and I discovered that I will still thinking about little details of the movie, I realized that I had seen something rather profound. Experiences like that are rare, especially in a culture that treats motion pictures as disposable time-wasters, so I have come to value them more and more. What is even more rare is a film that keeps you thinking about it after you have seen it a second time. Morvern Callar is one of those films.