Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
If I told you there was a female filmmaker who won a Cannes Jury prize for a student film fifteen years ago, a slew of other awards from leading festivals for her subsequent shorts, and then broke into the world of feature films with each earning achievements (such as independent film awards, BAFTA wins, FIPRESCI prizes, and Palme d’Or nominations), you’d likely assume you knew her work. After all, the last 15 years haven’t seen many multiple-prize winning female filmmakers. Yet Lynne Ramsay remains just out of the spotlight, an undeniable talent highly regarded by those who’ve discovered her and a treasure waiting to be discovered by the many who haven’t.
Ramsay is at the Toronto International Film Festival this week with her absolutely stellar, gut-wrenching third feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell, the film unleashes a mother’s pain as she quietly lives with the fact that her young boy isn’t the innocent wonder that the outside world, and his father, think he is. She, Eva, begins as a carefree adventurer who must adjust to the at-home life when she becomes a mother. Husband Franklin (Reilly) is overjoyed, and Eva is apprehensive.
At first it might seem as if any perceived slight by Kevin towards Eva is nothing more than her own ill feelings about being stuck at home or moving to the ‘burbs. But something seemingly innocent like screaming all day for mommy and snuggling quietly with daddy is the least of Eva’s worries. With every passing year Kevin’s manipulation grows; it begins with fairly benign insults and passive aggressive cruelty and gradually escalates into increasingly dangerous actions. Eva sees it all, and no matter what she says to her husband, he doesn’t believe her.
Rather than just leaving the piece as a simple escalation from birth to adolescence, the past is intermingled with increasingly detailed glimpses of the present. Today’s Eva is alone, tortured by her neighbors in a run-down house, by those she runs into at the store, and by the people she works with. Each modern-day moment unleashes a new memory from the past, and as we learn more about Kevin, we begin to learn how her dire world came to be. Ramsay toys with our hopes and weaknesses; she plucks at our aggravations, making us feel Eva’s frustration and the futility of her position. Ramsay pummels the viewer with intense close-ups, but they’re not frenetic or jumbled. They’re purposeful, like an eye or thought passing from moment to moment. This film is not so much an act of storytelling as it is an immersive look into a terrible situation.
The film’s impact is as much about how Ramsay shares it as it is about the Eva herself. Though her skills have matured impressively over 15 years and a small handful of films, Ramsay has always excelled at revealing the emotion in silence and stoicism.
In her first feature, Ramsay dove into the desperate world of Glasgow residents in the 1970s – people living in increasingly terrible conditions due to a long garbage strike. Rather than offering an immersive, sensory approach like Kevin, Ramsay simply chronicles life in this dilapidated housing project, focusing specifically on a young boy, James (William Fadie). She films James at arm’s length, as he silently keeps the secret that he was involved in the death of his neighbor and friend, as he tries to survive inhuman conditions while his family breaks under the pressure of a miserable life. We see how such degradation informs the actions of the youth who suffer it and how dangerous sentiments quickly web out from bullies to younger generations, from a troubled mother to a girl who tries to make connections with her body.
By keeping the audience at a distance, there’s no off-putting melodrama or artistic condescension to taint the experience, no heavy manipulation to tell the audience what to think or to drown the affair with political motives. Ratcatcher simply offers a look into this life – sweet moments of connection and love, and all the squalor that plagues it – the sadness of a girl being sexually used by the bullies of the town, how the young boys terrorize animals and humans alike to gain some sense of control, the stress such living conditions place on relationships, and of course, the physical ramifications of ever piling garbage – lice, dirt, disease.
The film took the critical world by storm (as much as it could in the earlier days of the internet), and is now a Criterion release.
Morvern Callar (2002)
Less accessible but equally fascinating, Morvern Callar stars Samantha Morton as Morvern, a girl we’re introduced to as she lightly caresses her boyfriend’s dead body. He has committed suicide during Christmas, leaving her a collection of gifts and a letter with his last wishes, which include looking for a publisher for the book he’s written to her. But Morvern doesn’t follow any expected rationale. She doesn’t tell anyone he’s dead, she disposes of the body, passes the book off as her own, and takes her friend on a trip to live the high life of clubbing and sex.
It sounds callous, or at the very least darkly comedic, but Ramsay is comfortable just leaving the viewer in a perpetual state of questioning. Morvern doesn’t say much, but between Ramsay’s direction and Morton’s acting, there’s a palpable sadness, and it’s easy to imagine this girl struggling in a dank town, meeting and falling for a much wealthier and talented man, and then reacting to his selfishness as he rips away her security and leaves her with his remains in both body and possessions. Though the viewer is given so little about Morvern to latch on to, Ramsay manages to make the silence that shrouds her star thick with meaning and dulled emotion.
For her work on Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, Ramsay was listed as the 12th best director in the biz by Guardian, and one of the only women to even make the list.
Ramsay seemed to be balancing gracefully on the precipice of fame after Morvern, but the next nine years passed quickly as she struggled to get the right project and make it stick. Before Peter Jackson stepped in and offered a failed adaptation of the bestseller, she was going to adapt The Lovely Bones for the big screen. She spent four years working on the project; this was likely a blessing in the long run, considering how the film ultimately turned out and her thoughts on the novel as a whole (she started the project before it was released). Nevertheless, it was a period of hardship, with her friend and Morvern co-scribe passing away during her time away from the camera, as well as her father. (She likens the Bones experience to being “shell shocked.”) More recently she was also asked to film Jane Eyre, another tome that could’ve thrived under her vision, but one she refused since she didn’t adapt it herself. Ramsay eventually settled on Kevin and after the usual struggle for financing, her third film finally came to be.
It’s difficult to speak about Ramsay’s talent without falling into a whirlwind of praise that is genuinely felt but comes off like a mess of platitudes and extreme gushing. There’s something immensely genuine and skilled in her work, a rare match that gives the viewer not only an appreciation of the overall experience of the story’s world and people, but also of the craft and thoughtfulness it took to create it. She’s one of the most skilled female filmmakers in cinema today, one who simply cannot be ignored by anyone questing for female talent on the big screen.
For those of you well-versed in the wonder that is Ramsay, you’ll be happy to learn that she has two new films in the works – one of which is a psychological science fiction piece, which sounds like the perfect setup for her talents – plus a short for the Olympics.
Go rent her pieces. Now! I implore you. Let me know what you think (or if you already love her!), and when Kevin hits theaters, prepare yourself for a skilled and bracing, but genuinely moving film in which Tilda Swinton shines.