Bechdel Test Canon: Morvern Callar

Morvern Callar is one of the few films included in the A.V. Club's New Cult Canon, a series I'm responding to with the Bechdel Test Canon. Samantha Morton was later singled out by the publication for giving one of the best film performances of the last decade. It's also the only selection I've written about previously. However, I only wrote about two scenes in conjunction with song selection. Today I'd like to fold in Morvern Callar's musical preoccupations with the formidable work of lead actress Samantha Morton and director Lynne Ramsay, who do the Scottish film establishment proud with their efforts here.

Morvern Callar poster

This is Ramsay's second film and a personal favorite. It was preceded by 1999's Ratcatcher, about a poor Glaswegian boy who comes of age during a garbage strike in the mid-1970s. The film was put out on Criterion after a limited release. She intended to follow Callar with her take on Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, but Peter Jackson realized it instead. I cannot wait to see her collaboration with Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is slated for release next year. Callar, a bewitching, unsettling film adaptation of Alan Warner's book about a grocery clerk whose aspirant novelist boyfriend kills himself during the holidays and leaves behind a manuscript she pawns off to publishers as her own to fund a holiday in Spain is a big reason I will follow her career.

First, let's talk about the soundtrack, which music supervisors Maggie Bazin and Andrew Cannin helped put together. It was why publications like Sight & Sound claimed it to be among the coolest releases in 2002. It may also explain Palm Pictures' involvement in DVD distribution and why folks like St. Vincent's Annie Clark took notice. Morvern Callar's music primarily comes from a mixtape Callar's boyfriend James left with his suicide note and the novel. Boasting cuts from Aphex Twin, Can, Boards of Canada, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Broadcast, Stereolab, and the Velvet Underground, Callar oozes the kind of hipness that either fascinates or repels people from receiving the latest Sofia Coppola production (I'm always in the first camp, with reservations).

Morvern with headphones

Looking past the production's indie credibility, the soundtrack is a way into its taciturn protagonist's psyche. In many scenes, she's got her headphones on. When she faces another day under the fluorescent lights at the grocery store, it's to Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra's plaintive duet "Some Velvet Morning." As she dismembers her boyfriend's body for burial in his tub, she's listening to the Velvets' eerie "I'm Sticking With You." In the film's final moment, she's drowning out propulsive rave music with the Mamas and the Papas' aching "Dedicated to the One I Love." It's implied that Callar isn't much of a talker even when she isn't grieving, so the music helps orient Callar's mental state and is a nifty framing device. If you ever find yourself in a boring conversation with someone who's gushing about how Rushmore's soundtrack tells the film's story, mentioning Morvern Callar might shift the conversation. As befitting its moody, silent heroine, instrumental tracks with oblong structures dominate.

Comparing Ramsay's second feature to Coppola's filmography isn't entirely off-base. Both women rely on soundtracks to embellish upon their scripts' terse dialog. However, as Roger Ebert notes in his astute review of Callar, attention to class differences set them apart. As Blackamazon noted in her take-down of Coppola and hipster feminism, the director privileges unchallenged representations of upper- and upper-middle-class, straight, cisgender, white women and girls. But Callar is enmeshed in class conflict. Though the film never comments upon it directly until Callar meets with her publishing agents, there must have been considerable socioeconomic differences between Callar and her boyfriend. That she has no family of his to call after his death suggests either the newness of their relationship or that he didn't value it enough to integrate her into his life. While some may think of her decision to pass his novel off as her own is dubious, I read it as a woman attempting to move beyond her limited means.

Class solidarity informs Callar's friendship with Lanna (Kathleen McDermott, in her film debut), a bubbly co-worker with a thick Scottish accent who's content with a pint in her hand and a boy in her bed. Despite personality differences, they attend parties and bathe together while visiting Lanna's ailing grandmother. After Callar cleans out her boyfriend's bank account, the pair embark on a trip to Spain and encounter several communication breakdowns. Lanna believes they're on vacation so Callar can get over a break-up, a fallacy her travel companion can't or won't correct. Later she reveals to have slept with James when he was dating Callar and believes this to be a source of tension between the two. Later, she doesn't believe Callar when she blurts that her boyfriend is dead. What actually seems to divide them is Callar's inability to articulate how she feels about her current situation, as she herself doesn't seem to know.

Lanna and Morvern

While some may argue Callar's relationship with Lanna barely passes the Bechdel Test, Morton and Ramsay's kinship aces it. Ebert notes that Ramsay is the daughter of a bartender and Morton was an at-risk youth in foster care for several years. She was also a young mother when filming Callar. There's clearly trust between the actor and director, who fill in what Salon's Stephanie Zacharek conceptualized as a silent film with meaningful non-verbal exchanges. This is evident in how Callar regards a female traveler she encounters twice. First she sees her failing to engage in poolside games at a resort. They run into each other again in a club bathroom and Callar, who clearly empathizes with this catatonic woman, worries that she's too loaded to function.

Finally, critics may question the feminist potential of the soundtrack. It could be understood as a way for James to serve as narrator or yet another thing Callar steals from him. But we never know who brought those songs into their relationship. At one point, Lanna requests to hear something from James' collection and Callar puts on Broadcast's "You Can Fall." But Callar doesn't elaborate on what the song meant to either of them. One of the film's most entrancing sequences seems to make the case that this is Callar's soundtrack. While on vacation, Callar hooks up with a young man whose mother just died. Their sex scene is scored by Lee "Scratch" Perry's hypnotic dub track "Hold Of Death." In montage, Callar cries, jumps on his bed, impishly disrobes him, dances suggestively, and wakes up in his arms, realizing that she's not ready to share any real intimacy with another person. When Callar sells her boyfriend's book and uses the advance money to fund her move, she makes sure to pack up his CD collection. Some may call it stealing, but I think Callar is reclaiming what rightfully belongs to her. But this ultimately provides little resolution for our tough heroine, and the way the film visualizes this discontent continues to haunt at least one viewer.

Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

You started to make a really

You started to make a really good point, and I wanted to underscore it and circle it and draw a big, pointy arrow to it: Morgan's friendship with Lanna doesn't pass the Bechdel Test because it is not a real friendship. Worse, it's a fake friendship in a true-to-life way. Argh, what can I say! This is one of my favorite movies!

I don't think that friendship

I don't think that friendship is a component of the Bechdel test.... just conversation.

That's true -- friendship

That's true -- friendship does not necessarily have to be a component of the test (RMJ knows all about this, having written on it for her Bitch TV blog series). However, I thought the at-times fragile nature of female friendships was just as much worth exploring here as the solid female relationships I've discussed in films I've talked about earlier in the series.

Alyx Vesey

This one is totally one of my

This one is totally one of my favorite movies as well, jenn. However, I don't buy that it isn't a real friendship. I think some friendship dynamics really work this way, for better or worse. What's more, the actors have way too much chemistry together for that to be the case -- witness the scenes in the tub or in James' apartment or when they run away from the hotel after Callar's one night stand. When they fight or talk amongst each other, I really feel a connection between them, however fraught.

Also, I really believe Callar wants Lanna to come with her at the end of the film but Lanna is clearly too irritated by what Callar can't tell her to trust her friend anymore. Her refusal to do so might get to your point about this being a fake friendship -- i.e., one not built on reciprocity or trust. But I hear your point about it being a fake friendship in a true-to-life way, but I think of it more as a friendship of convenience. It totally seems like the friendship two young women might have. Again, this comes back to class solidarity. They work together at a grocery store and they don't have a lot of professional prospects. They're in their 20s but neither one of them are married or have kids. It may not be a lasting friendship, but I think tenuous connections with women are commonplace and challenging in our homosocial interactions and I think this film does a great job exploring that particular issue.

Alyx Vesey