Morvern Callar

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

29 July

Mama Cass dies, 1974

On this day in 1974, Mama Cass Elliot, the large-size singer with the Mamas and the Papas, died from eating a ham sandwich. Except she didn’t. Die from eating a ham sandwich, I mean. Instead she probably died from extreme dieting, in an attempt to lose weight. She’d found fame with the Mamas and the Papas, singing songs such as California Dreamin’ and Monday Monday, and when the band split she embarked on a solo career. Her debut show, in Las Vegas in October 1968, was a disaster, Elliot barely being able to sing, partly because the six month crash diet she’d been on had given her acid reflux, which had burnt her vocal chords, partly because she was wasted on heroine. Her shows at the London Palladium six years later had been, by contrast, a triumph, with Cass getting standing ovations every night for her two-week residency. On 28 July she sang her final note, got her last curtain call, phoned Mamas and Papas bandmate Michelle Phillips, then went to bed and, aged 32, died in her sleep. She had been fasting four days a week in the run-up to the shows in an attempt to lose weight and this extreme dieting, coupled with the fact that her heart was suffering from “fatty myocardial degeneration due to obesity” (according to the coroner who examined her) led to her death. There was a ham sandwich in her room, hence the rumour, but it was untouched. Four years later Keith Moon died in the same apartment, belonging to Harry Nilsson, at the same age.

Morvern Callar (2002, dir: Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher was one of the knockout movies of 1999 and her feature debut. Morvern Callar could easily have been more of the same and everybody would have been very happy indeed, thanks very much. Instead Ramsay decided to go off in the direction that the end of Ratcatcher had indicated she might, into more subjective, impressionistic film-making.

Samantha Morton, here only 25 and already a veteran and a legend, plays the bizarrely named Morvern Callar, a woman who wakes up one morning to find that her boyfriend is dead. It’s Christmas and he’s left her a suicide note propped up against the computer, but also on the hard drive is the manuscript for a novel he wants her to hawk around the publishing houses. Callar unwraps the presents, then goes out to work in a supermarket, leaving the dead body lying in its own blood in the house. Later, she comes home, then goes out for the night with her friend, gets drunk, has sex with some guy. It’s all very normal. Except that she has a dead boyfriend back at home. And the image that will linger from this film after all the others have faded is of the body and the Christmas tree lights winking on and off like some big ironic joke.

In a film that’s about being at the mercy of your situation, being passive because it makes rolling with the punches easier, Callar decides to delete her boyfriend’s name from the title page of his manuscript and write in her own. And then, having chopped the useless boyfriend into bits, she goes on holiday to a raving Ibiza, with her mate Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). And it’s here where Ramsay’s gift for colour and movement come to the fore, as a woman who is a watcher rather than a doer enters a milieu where it’s all about taking part, raving, expressing yourself, going crazy.

Ramsay and Morton are in a perfect lock-step, the former doing things with sound and colour that will deliver acid flashbacks to anyone who’s ever indulged in psychedelics, the latter being simply amazingly intense in her passivity, closed off yet oddly readable. Then things come to some sort of a loony head as Callar’s publishers meet with her out in Ibiza and…

Not everything works. But maybe it’s not meant to. Can you cut up a body and dispose of it so easily, just using a trowel? Would publishers of an unknown writer really give her £100,000 up front? The answers are no and no. But it doesn’t matter, because Ramsay has made parts one and two of this film so compelling, and in entirely different ways, that the uneasy landing on Planet Fact of part three can be forgiven. And in Morton Ramsay has one of the best actresses on the planet, whose magnetic effect goes beyond talent into the area of magic.

Why Watch?

  • Samantha Morton’s performance
  • The great debut of acting newbie Kathleen McDermott
  • The astonishing cinematography by one of the greats, Alwin Küchler (Hanna, Sunshine)
  • The only adaptation to date of an Alan Warner novel, amazingly

Morvern Callar – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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