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MORVERN CALLAR

DEATH, OR SOMETHING LIKE IT

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Although it takes a while getting around to it, Morvern Callar eventually slips into the ultra-black comedy that writer/director Lynne Ramsay intends it to be. I think. After all, it's Scottish, and this brand of macabre has been the official genre of Scottish cinema for maybe a decade now. And it involves a woman who cuts up a dead body into pieces -- she does it wearing panties, and nothing else -- so you kinda gotta have to laugh.

Morvern Callar opens with its young titular character (Samantha Morton) lying on the floor aside the prone body of her shirtless boyfriend. No, wait: Make that the prone body of her shirtless dead boyfriend. She caresses his bare back, sniffs his hair, runs her fingertips over the clotted blood on his wrists. This lasts for five minutes or so. Then, she and we notice "Read Me" on James' computer screen. It's a note, in which he tells her, "Don't try to understand. It just felt like the right thing to do." He's also left behind his unpublished novel.

So naturally, horrified by her boyfriend's suicide on Christmas Eve, and with a corpse rotting on the hardwood floor next to the flashing colored lights of their Christmas tree, Morvern opens James' gifts to her. There's a cigarette lighter whose flame she ignites and extinguishes several times. There's a mix tape with "Music for You" written on it. And then, deep in her anguish, she goes to a Christmas party and tells her friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) that James has left her for points unknown.

None of this is funny, and Ramsay doesn't play it that way: It's just that none of it seems to make much sense, unless you let go of your mundane reality and slip into a mindset of black humor and metaphor. From that angle, Morvern Callar is relentless and serious about itself. You might even assume -- though Ramsay's minimalist script, co-written with Liana Dognini and based on a novel, never dares to hint -- that Morvern's behavior has some distant reason behind it. Is she just a piece of emotionally petrified driftwood? Could she blame herself for the suicide? Is she embarrassed by the way she's been abandoned? Could she first have been in shock at his death, and then concluded (irrationally) that it would look too odd to call the authorities after so many hours? Sure, why not. Have you ever come home to find your lover dead?

Morvern doesn't cut James up into pieces until the next day. That's also when she puts her name on his novel, mails it to a publisher, and then leaves with Lanna on holiday to Spain, where she parties with ravers and hooks up for a night of bouncy, off-the-wall sex (I mean both of those things literally). Ramsay films that scene with a percussive musical score on the soundtrack but with no human sounds of any kind, except for a brief hint of voice just before it ends. It's typical of her cool, shadowy visual style, which revels in the familiar Three S's of Art Cinema -- silence, stasis and symbolism.

In fact, hardly anyone in Morvern Callar speaks at all, and when they do, Ramsay doesn't seem to care what they say: Her actors mumble at low volumes in dense and often unintelligible accents. Morvern Callar reveals its characters through their behavior, as if their words have no meaning anyway in these postmodern times. I'm giving Ramsay the benefit of the doubt with this interpretation because I have mild tinnitus in my left ear.

Morton, perhaps best known for playing mutes (or near-mutes) in Sweet and Lowdown and Minority Report, gives one of those sullen, physical, art-film performances that you can admire and appreciate but can't really get very much from. Her character is such a blank slate that there's not much any actress could do with it beyond the mystically superficial. Clearly by design, Ramsay frustrates us in Morvern Callar by never giving into feeling, instead keeping her movie's emotions on ice. In the long opening sequence, Morvern shows only the faintest wisp of emotion after her night of partying: She flicks on her gift cigarette lighter, flicks it off, and then, one thin tear descends her cheek, never to return.

What to make of all this? Does Morvern Callar cogitate on life and death in a particular culture -- do gal pals, for example, really bathe together in Scotland on Christmas Day at grandma's house? - or do Ramsay's issues concern us all? You might say Morvern is liberated by her boyfriend's death, and especially by his serendipitous manuscript and the money in his bank account. But who can say why she needed liberation without knowing more about their relationship and her life? (Morvern works in a discount department store and wears a gray striped smock on the job.) Suffice it to say that some people, some women, live miserable lives with no hope, and that they spend much of those lives searching for the light (figuratively). Morvern, it seems, is one of those people, one of those women. So when Ramsay photographs a close-up of her hand in the Spanish dirt, with an ant roaming benignly around the back of it -- gosh, I guess I don't know how to end this sentence. But I'm pretty sure that ant means something. * * 1/2

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