Film Club - Morvern Callar

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the masked man
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Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby the masked man » 09 Nov 2008, 13:06

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Possibly my favourite film made in the last ten years, this is actually hard to categorise. On the face of it, it's a film about grief, mixed with a reflection on the emotional emptiness of the 90s hedonistic club culture (though the film was made in 2001, it seems to be set a few years earlier). Yet neither description seems to capture what's at the film's centre...I'd also be tempted to see it as a character study (after all, it's virtually solipsist, as every scene features the title character and there is only one other substantial character in the whole film). Yet that description doesn't work well either, for Morvern is totally impenetrable; as played (magnificently) by Samantha Morton, she would probably make for a very good poker player...

So what happens? It starts with the bleakest of all Christmas scenes. In the Scottish port of Oban, a young woman named Morvern Callar caresses the body of her boyfriend, who has just killed himself. Reading his suicide note left on their computer. The note mentions that he's written a novel, and that he wants her to send it to a publisher in London. Morvern changes the author's name on the manuscript to make it seem that she wrote it, and then sets off to party with her friends...

That makes her sound callous, doesn't it? Yet the film treats her sympathetically; besides, we don't really know enough to make a moral judgement. No clue is given as why the death occurred, and a charitable explanation of Morvern's conduct is that she's applying a coping strategy to handle the pain. Director Lynne Ramsey shoots the party scenes in impressionistic style, and we get the feeling that Morvern is highly sensitive and somehow removed from her community. One change apparently made from the source novel is that in the film Morvern is English rather than Scottish. Presumably this switch occurred because an actor of Morton's quality became attached to the project. Besides, this works thematically - Morton's Nottingham accent does give her character a sense of otherness in this Scottish community.

Visually the film is consistently adventurous and poetic. The opening scene is lit by flashing lights on a Christmas tree, extending rhythmic coloured light into the gloom - rarely have festive decorations seemed quite so desperate. The scene is echoed later in the film, when Morvern takes her best friend, Lanna, to Spain on holiday. As Morvern wanders like a ghost through a nightclub full of E'd-up Brits, the slow motion photography makes the strobe lighting resemble the Christmas lights - it seems that she has not escaped the gloom of her apartment at all. There are similar visual rhymes used throughout the film - for example, a brutalist Spanish hotel is eerily similar in structure to a mausoleum complex that Morvern later visits.

Finally, I should point out that (as Jeff K alluded on the main Film Club thread), musically this film is incredibly suited to BCB tastes - Velvet Underground, Lee & Nancy, Can, Stereolab, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada all feature on a marvellous soundtrack. In the opening scenes, Morvern opens her Christmas presents and finds that her boyfriend has bought her a Walkman and compiled a cassette entitled 'Music For You'. She spends much of the film listening to this, and its contents form most of the film's soundtrack. This may actually help give the best clue to her personality - she uses the tape to add colour to her prosaic existence (an early scene where she arrives at the supermarket where she works is transformed by the sound of 'Some Velvet Morning'). As the film progresses, she becomes more focused on her surroundings as she becomes bored with the predictability of her pill-popping party girl lifestyle. The music helps her do this.

I think this is a brave and wonderful film, simultaneously depressing and uplifting. I hope some of you have been able to track it down (and I know that TRGP's a fan) so hopefully we can get some discusiion going here.

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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Jeff K » 10 Nov 2008, 00:14

It's next up in my netflix queue (I'm on a Mac so I can't stream it) and it should arrive by Tuesday. If anything MM's summary of the film has made me want to see it even more.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby The Write Profile » 10 Nov 2008, 08:27

What a shame I didn't see this post earlier!

That makes her sound callous, doesn't it? Yet the film treats her sympathetically; besides, we don't really know enough to make a moral judgement. No clue is given as why the death occurred, and a charitable explanation of Morvern's conduct is that she's applying a coping strategy to handle the pain. Director Lynne Ramsey shoots the party scenes in impressionistic style, and we get the feeling that Morvern is highly sensitive and somehow removed from her community. One change apparently made from the source novel is that in the film Morvern is English rather than Scottish. Presumably this switch occurred because an actor of Morton's quality became attached to the project. Besides, this works thematically - Morton's Nottingham accent does give her character a sense of otherness in this Scottish community.


I think what's so striking about Morton's performance is how internalised it is. For a lead, it's completely locked off, there's very little in the way of acting "cues" as to how she is feeling- even the meeting with the publishers is by its very nature her playing a role that's other to herself, but what's telling is they take her social gaucheness as read. Which is to say the one moment of sincerity in conversation- when she replies she's going to use the money to go "travelling" - is seen as a wry joke. Actually the film could only work with a Morton-like actress, because the point of the titular character, I think, is that she assesses every situation on its merits with an almost removed pragmatism.

Somewhere along the line, she must have built up a wall around her, or at least learned to keep people at a remove. I think the book which the film's based on takes this aspect further- there's even a suggestion, in its glitchy and occasionally associative prose, that's she partly autistic. And yet, is she any worse than her feckless, hedonist friend, or the people they all meet and sleep with on their holiday? Certainly, no one really engages with anyone on any deep level here. I mean, here is a film where a character called "Man with Hat" gets sixth billing in the credits!

Morton is perfect for this role, because she's a very singleminded actress. Her performance as Ian Curtis's suffering wife had some of that, too. Which may explain why she's not so good at playing extroverted characters- she was just wrong as the heroine for Vincent Ward's River Queen (and by all accounts she was a total tyrant to to the film crew too, eventually causing many of them to leave the set) for that very reason. It's hard to explain, but she seems to be an actress that tries to push herself away from the action, while everything throws her into it.
Visually the film is consistently adventurous and poetic. The opening scene is lit by flashing lights on a Christmas tree, extending rhythmic coloured light into the gloom - rarely have festive decorations seemed quite so desperate. The scene is echoed later in the film, when Morvern takes her best friend, Lanna, to Spain on holiday. As Morvern wanders like a ghost through a nightclub full of E'd-up Brits, the slow motion photography makes the strobe lighting resemble the Christmas lights - it seems that she has not escaped the gloom of her apartment at all. There are similar visual rhymes used throughout the film - for example, a brutalist Spanish hotel is eerily similar in structure to a mausoleum complex that Morvern later visits.



Yes, but did you also notice how the way everything's also very exaggerated. There really isn't a lot of room for her to escape, whether it's the suffocating dark of her apartment in Scotland, or the piercing, acute sunlight of Spain. I think it's one of the most satisfying aspects of the picture, because it gives Callar something to fight against, if that makes sense.

Finally, I should point out that (as Jeff K alluded on the main Film Club thread), musically this film is incredibly suited to BCB tastes - Velvet Underground, Lee & Nancy, Can, Stereolab, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada all feature on a marvellous soundtrack. In the opening scenes, Morvern opens her Christmas presents and finds that her boyfriend has bought her a Walkman and compiled a cassette entitled 'Music For You'. She spends much of the film listening to this, and its contents form most of the film's soundtrack. This may actually help give the best clue to her personality - she uses the tape to add colour to her prosaic existence (an early scene where she arrives at the supermarket where she works is transformed by the sound of 'Some Velvet Morning'). As the film progresses, she becomes more focused on her surroundings as she becomes bored with the predictability of her pill-popping party girl lifestyle. The music helps her do this.


And more important, this is a director who understands how to use pop music for something other than emotional shorthand. It becomes part of the film, rather than separate from it. She achieves this in a couple of ways- one is to occasionally have the soundtrack emphasise the "hiss" of the walkman, the other is to use it to directly comment on the action in a way that undercuts it without necessarily cheapening it. Indeed, a lot of the film's humour comes from this- the use of "I'm Sticking With You" as she buries and cuts up the body, or the final sequence where she wonders through the E'd up clubbers to "Dedicated to the One I Love."

It's a perfectly formed film. There is nothing I would remove from it.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby the masked man » 11 Nov 2008, 10:21

Well, not much action here yet, but thanks, Matthew, for a great post. What I really like about a film like this that deliberately withholds information is that it involves the viewer more - in the audience we have to work, to make connections, and look at the film with more concentration.

I'm interested in your comment that, according to the source novel, there's a suggestion that Morvern is 'partly autistic'. I must admit that I haven't read the novel, partly because I didn't want to be distracted by any extraneous information about Morvern, and I wondered if a first person narrative might give away too much. But I can see that point might well be relevant to the film - on the other hand, her reactions, driven by what you aptly describe as 'removed pragmatism' may equally be put down to an emotionally damaged woman dealing with grief. How does the book work, Matthew? Is it as oblique as the film?

Also, I really don't think that there's a more interesting actor than Samantha Morton in the world today, I haven't seen Control yet, but I now have the DVD and I'll probably watch it this week. I've read a lot of pieces about her style, and I agree that she's very internalised - somehow she can convey emotion without moving her features much (very expressive eyes maty be the key here). I've heard her described as 'cinema's last great silent actress', and I think that's a great description - it does seem that she's more powerful as a performer when she doesn't get to talk much. In Sweet & Lowdown I understand that her character was entirely mute, while she spent much of Minority Report in a silent underwater cocoon. In Morvern Callar, she only speaks when it seems necessary. Also, isn't it fascinating that the one scene where she apparently opens up to another human (when she visits the grief-stricken boy in room 1022), the dialogue fades out once the conversation really begins.

Which brings me to another point - you could probably write an entire essay about the extraordinary sound design in this film. I'll come back to this later, actually.

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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby James R » 11 Nov 2008, 12:36

Interesting choice. I recall there being a reasonable amount of buzz surrounding this film upon its release, interesting-looking soundtrack, etc, yet I never got around to seeing it on the big screen and somehow I've never got around to seeing it on the small screen either. (Possibly because it seems to be unavailable on DVD here, at least at the moment.) I don't know what other people think, but could the title be off-putting to some viewers? There's something less than obvious about it, it gives away almost nothing about the film. It's not even obvious that it's a girl's name (at least not to me).
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Samoan » 12 Nov 2008, 09:20

Seen it once . Would rather stick pins in my eyes than view it again . It's just a thoroughly nasty film about a
sociopath .
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Owen » 12 Nov 2008, 19:58

I wouldn't go that far, i remember liking aspects of it and i started to rewatch it for this but i had to give up in the end. There's something interesting about Morton's detachment and that faux childlike thing she does, either here or elsewhere, like i said i remember liking it and expected to get more from it this time after MM's great description. i guess i've just got everything from it i'm going to get as it just felt like having seen it all before from Morton and there isn't really much else to the movie apart from some fairly standard indy stuff on the soundtrack.

It does a good job of capturing a few aspects of modern british culture (including the spanish bits) in film but it doesn't really say much of interest about them however genuine they feel.

Didn't mean to moan about the movie, i caught it on tv one night and got more from it and was expecting to enjoy rewatching but ultimately i wasn't really enjoying it this time

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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby The Write Profile » 12 Nov 2008, 20:21

the masked man wrote:I'm interested in your comment that, according to the source novel, there's a suggestion that Morvern is 'partly autistic'. I must admit that I haven't read the novel, partly because I didn't want to be distracted by any extraneous information about Morvern, and I wondered if a first person narrative might give away too much. But I can see that point might well be relevant to the film - on the other hand, her reactions, driven by what you aptly describe as 'removed pragmatism' may equally be put down to an emotionally damaged woman dealing with grief. How does the book work, Matthew? Is it as oblique as the film?


It's been a while since I last read the book, but one thing that struck me is how "glitchy" and "associative" narrative was- it seemed to flick from event to event without ever really getting a fair handle on what she actually felt. I'm reminded of a lot of literature surrounding aspergers which talks about people who are on the lower end of the "autistic" spectrum who seem to assess every situation on their merits but don't necessarily take into account extraneous factors such as emotion of other characters, social context, etc.

Now, there could be other contributing factors to her behaviour- and it could be as much down to the emotional damage caused by the said incident. But what's most interesting is how the most "orderly" sections of the novel are the ones where she's going over the music on the mixtape. Perhaps that's why it's such a constant companion for her- the music says and evokes the things she can't quite bring herself to do so.

I've posted this Philip Matthews* review before, but I think it is well worth a read. Certainly he captures the film's spirit surprisingly well, this passage in particular:


The character is unknowable, and back story is very slight – she’s “not from here” she tells a complete stranger who phones, and there is also a reference to a long-buried foster mother. This is a film with much beneath the surface that can only be intuited, so pay attention to Ramsay’s subtle construction, a kind of rhyming scheme: a dead mother is a recurring image, as are graves. There are repeated images of hands against windows – trying to apprehend something mysterious, trying to reach something unattainable – and repeated images of Morvern and Lanna lost in the great outdoors, once in Scotland and once in Spain.



I suppose it's the dichotomy surrounding the Morvern character that makes it such a tantalising film. Certainly, we're invited to play guessing games about her backstory- what made her what she is? And considering her actions, what's stopped her being a total recluse?

Incidentally, his blog features some other reviews worth reading, too
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Jeff K » 13 Nov 2008, 02:23

I like films that polarize opinions, especially ones I'm viewing for the first time. You almost know beforehand that you'll be forced to choose a side after the movie is over. Fortunately, I loved Movern Callar but I'm hard-pressed to come up with reasons why. Aside from the already mentioned accolades from MM and Matt (Morton's acting, the outstanding cinematography, the poetry), the film has a dark heart. Morton's character Morvern is so cold and detached that it's hard to feel any kinship to her. She keeps drifting from one scene to the next while the audience waits for some big pay-off that never happens. You want to feel some sympathy for her but you can't forget that she just sawed up her dead boyfriend's body and disposed of his body parts! Mind you, that was an unexpected and unforgettable scene and I'll never hear I'm Sticking With You the same way again. Just when you start to get drawn into Movern's plight, she does something to push you away. Much like she does to her friend Lana and other people she comes in contact with. It's also hard to get a handle on her actual feelings towards her boyfriend. Judging by the blase suicide note he left her, he wasn't exactly soul-mate material himself. But like MM has stated, little is known about their relationship to make judgements. Her switching of their names for his novel was humorous, after all he did "write it for her" and she took it literally , I guess.

After re-reading all that I wrote, it almost looks like a negative review which is far from the truth. The film is very unsettling and morbid. I can also understand why some would not like it. That said, I found it mesmerizing and thought-provoking. I'm not quite sure yet what thoughts it provoked but I'm glad I saw it and intend to watch it again at another time.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Rory Bellows » 16 Nov 2008, 22:02

Saw it on CH4 a few years ago..............excellent, and the 1st time I really heard Can. Which was nice.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 18 Nov 2008, 07:03

It is 1:30 am on a work night and I've just finished watching the film. For whatever reason, I don't have as much of a handle on what I've just seen as I'd like to. I'm going to need to chew on this one a bit. I'll try and put my thoughts together some time tomorrow.

In the meantime I'd like to ask about an aspect of the film that hasn't been commented on much yet. There seemed to be an awful lot made of Morvern's desire to try on other identities. Not just in crediting herself for the novel, but in many small ways as well. She wears the necklace that says Jackie and takes that identity on for a while. She and Lana become "Olga" and "Helga" for a few moments. At least twice in the film either she or Lana has to struggle to have someone grasp her real name.

I'm not sure that the film is "about" identity per se, but the main character seems to see shedding her identity as a way towards freedom. Given this context, Lana's final words to her seem like a harsh truth. There really is nowhere for her to escape to. I can't help but have the soundtrack ringing in my ears a bit...life can never be exactly what we want it to be...
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby The Write Profile » 18 Nov 2008, 07:54

Spenny the Fat Boy wrote:
I'm not sure that the film is "about" identity per se, but the main character seems to see shedding her identity as a way towards freedom. Given this context, Lana's final words to her seem like a harsh truth. There really is nowhere for her to escape to. I can't help but have the soundtrack ringing in my ears a bit...life can never be exactly what we want it to be...



I think there's something in that. It's like a game she can play so as to help absolve her of some of the blame for her actions- think about how young children sometimes create imaginary friends and use them as an excuse for their naughty acts- but I think there's something more to it as well. As you say, even with her freedom, Morvern is essentially trapped, and the aimless hedonism of Spain doesn't offer her that much more release than her previous existence. If anything, it seems to unsettle her more. Maybe, as you, that's another reason why she relies so heavily on that tape to narrate her own thoughts.

A very interesting point, Davey, I hadn't thought of that before.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 18 Nov 2008, 19:58

The RightGraduate Profile wrote:
Spenny the Fat Boy wrote:
I'm not sure that the film is "about" identity per se, but the main character seems to see shedding her identity as a way towards freedom. Given this context, Lana's final words to her seem like a harsh truth. There really is nowhere for her to escape to. I can't help but have the soundtrack ringing in my ears a bit...life can never be exactly what we want it to be...



I think there's something in that. It's like a game she can play so as to help absolve her of some of the blame for her actions- think about how young children sometimes create imaginary friends and use them as an excuse for their naughty acts- but I think there's something more to it as well. As you say, even with her freedom, Morvern is essentially trapped, and the aimless hedonism of Spain doesn't offer her that much more release than her previous existence. If anything, it seems to unsettle her more. Maybe, as you, that's another reason why she relies so heavily on that tape to narrate her own thoughts.

A very interesting point, Davey, I hadn't thought of that before.


Another point that relates to this is the pay phone conversation she has at the beginning of the film. She seems to take comfort in taking on the identity of whomever the caller was trying to reach. Even the use of light costuming and make-up in the first party scene ads to this motif.

Unfortunately, though I found more than enough to consider in this film to make it worthwhile, I am also finding myself left a little bit cold by it. The reasons for that seem to swirl around the business with the dead boyfriend. At some level I simply don't believe it. It feels like an artistic conceit to me. Not just in its unthinkability, but in a much more visceral manner - I simply don't see this girl carving up her boyfriend and disposing of his body in pieces.

Maybe it is okay that I don't buy it. There is nothing all that wrong about a good artistic conceit. But strangely enough I think I'd have been more effected by this girl's plight if her reaction to death and abandonment fell anywhere within the range of understandable human emotions - even at the far end. Of course there are unthinkable acts that do happen, but that doesn't seem to me to be what this film is about.

To some degree I wonder if the problem is an artistic problem at all. Maybe my hesitation is that I want my monsters to be monsters and my humans to be human - and maybe this film is arguing that life isn't that clear. Or maybe the film is a bit of a mess in that regard. I can't decide which.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Jeff K » 18 Nov 2008, 20:51

Some great points there, Davey. I had problems with her dismembering her boyfriend too. Not the gore aspect because it wasn't an explicit scene but I felt it was out of line for her character to do something like that. All in all, it's a great film to discuss and it's a shame more haven't chipped in with their views. I saw Movern Callar early last week and I'm still thinking about it.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby mentalist (slight return) » 19 Nov 2008, 00:02

I saw it last night. I appreciated the use of music, there were lots of interesting editing techniques, Samantha Morton of course was perfect for the part. And it had a great rhythm to it. It didn't leave me caring too much about whether Morvern was autistic or grieving or mentally ill or just self absorbed or whatever. It seems you can attribute the whole spectrum of human emotions and reasons to Morvern. She's really complex or a blank slate. I guess the movie is really open-ended in the way it allows you to interpret just about everything. Interesting. Maybe it didn't engage with me too much, but interesting.
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Snarfyguy » 19 Nov 2008, 05:15

Just saw it, but there's not much I can add to the comments above.

I found it genuinely disturbing - a character study of someone who's neither hero nor anti-hero. She may be one or the other, but you can't tell from watching the film whether she's good or bad, smart or dull, bewitching or repellant, or whether she simultaneously or in turn possesses all these contradictory attributes.

I don't think the autistic tag is wildly off the mark either. The character certainly seemed oddly self-cocooned, with the Walkman as a kind of talismanic hobby horse. And Samantha Morton's cheshire cat smile hides so much more than it reveals. Splendidly played.

Slightly off-topic, I *really* liked the depiction of Spain as a concentration camp for e-ed up yobs from Britain. From Eric Idle's immortal Watney's Red Barrel monologue to Paul Theroux's description of the Spanish coast in its off-season as an empty, haunted playground for overweight, sunburned Brits to stuff I've read on here, it sounds perfectly nightmarish. Very well observed (or at least keeping in line with what I imagine).

Anyway, I can see why some find Morvern Callar hard to love. It's certainly not very cuddly and ultimately it's more than a bit depressing. It's hard to know what to make of it, as the masked man observed at the beginning of the thread, as it careens from the pathetic fallacy of its bleak Northern setting to Shallow Grave-style blood-and-money hijinx to buddy / road flick to meditiations on identity a la Antonioni's The Passenger (made explicit by Callar's groping around in the dust [that could be a big strech, but that's what the scene brought to mind]); all with the everpresent giant question mark of a character walking through it.

I can't think of a less sexy scene with naked girls in a bathtub, either. :(
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 19 Nov 2008, 16:06

So what if we view her actions pertaining to the boyfriend simply as a metaphor. Does that change the film any?
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Snarfyguy » 19 Nov 2008, 16:24

Davey the Fat Boy wrote:So what if we view her actions pertaining to the boyfriend simply as a metaphor. Does that change the film any?

Sorry, how do you mean?
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Samoan » 19 Nov 2008, 16:57

The RightGraduate Profile wrote:
It's been a while since I last read the book, but one thing that struck me is how "glitchy" and "associative" narrative was-


I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about . My background is in science and social science . I love cinema but when I read this it is quite meaningless .

How do I know you're not re-hashing your uni lecture notes , or cherry-picking from every review ever written ? Perhaps there is truly original and inventive thought being expressed here ? I don't know .

I'm sorry I've alighted on this post and on this board member . Please don't take it personally . It is purely to illustrate a point . For my part , as a social sciences graduate , I feel increasingly divorced from partaking in Film Club . I know about montage and mise en scene , but I also know what really moves me both on paper and in cinematography .

No disrespect to Duck for launching Film Club .
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Re: Film Club - Morvern Callar

Postby Davey the Fat Boy » 19 Nov 2008, 17:02

Snarfyguy wrote:
Davey the Fat Boy wrote:So what if we view her actions pertaining to the boyfriend simply as a metaphor. Does that change the film any?

Sorry, how do you mean?


Lets say we didn't take it literally, but rather as a way of illustrating the way some people cannot approriately deal with trauma.

Growing up I lived in a house where nothing was ever fixed. We'd just work around broken things. "That door doesn't open, go around the house". "That step is loose - don't step on it." It took me years to see the correlation between these things and my mother's inability to deal with some of the emotional issues in her life.

Is it possible that the director simply wanted us to see Morvern as a girl who lacked the ability to figure out how to deal with loss?
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