She Saved Christmas: Life Before Death In Morvern Callar

She Saved Christmas: Life Before Death In Morvern Callar

Our namesake and everybody’s favourite Lynne Ramsay film, Morvern Callar offers ample food for thought around the festive season. Christmas offers a time for reanimation and reclamation in the wake of death, as, here, Morvern carries the weight of the holiday onto her own dubious future. Savina Petkova is here to hold her hand in doing so.

“He was bare and dead face-down on the scullery lino with blood around. The Christmas tree lights were on then off.”

So begins Alan Warner’s debut novel Morvern Callar—its first-person narration unflinching, its sentences diced, and its heroine indecipherable. When Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay decided to adapt the book in feature length form, together with screenwriter Liana Dognini, they transformed the ineffable unease of its point of view storytelling into a disembodied but omniscient camera. The viewer then accompanies Morvern, exquisitely portrayed by Samantha Morton, as she deals—or doesn’t—with her partner’s death by suicide. Both the novel and the film unfold as journeys through an inconsolable loss, paralleled with a somewhat stubborn emancipation process. It all begins on Christmas Day.

The film opens with a minimalist, but melancholic prologue: we hear a droning sound before we see a black screen. In a matter of seconds, an ever so slightly discernible electric hum announces an important element yet to be discovered, but its intensity is what lights the frame up. Once lit, the scene is one of claustrophobic intimacy: a close-up of a young woman’s face, head resting over her lover’s shoulder. While only fragments of him are visible, in the warm light her face looks beatific, eyes downcast, a faint glimmer illuminating their enclosed secrets. In a blink, buzzing is gone and we drown in darkness once again. Is this the end of the beginning? Rather, it’s a repetitive cycle —conceal, reveal, conceal—powered by the lights flickering on and off. 

In these lit-up frames punctuated by darkness, the current channels feelings; with the gentle brush of Morvern’s hand, the contours of someone who may be sleeping in her arms becomes visible, but only upon second glance. To share such vulnerability can be agonising, and so the interruptive twinkle of the Christmas lights can shield them from prolonged exposure. With this rhythm regulated by the blinking lights, Morvern Callar calls attention to an inexplicable loss—death in the narrative, but also the one embedded into cinema’s very nature. From one cut to the next, things can get lost, omitted, forgotten, if we do not take proper care of their continuity. And Morvern, too, takes care, in her own way. 

In Warner’s writing, the singular point of view records the outside world, but keeps everyone and everything at bay. Perhaps Ramsay saw this subtle act of removal as an invitation, a possible locus the camera could occupy, and together with cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler arranged a setup which would be outward-facing, never turning its gaze onto itself. Omitting the stream of consciousness narration results in a taciturn, unknowable Morvern on screen. Ramsay picked Samantha Morton fresh out of her Oscar-nominated role in 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown, where she plays a laundress with a speech disability, and her acting is physical, or rather, facial. Morton’s expressive face both reveals and conceals who Morvern is —her high brows, her composed look which rattles once in a while, but most of all, Ramsay saw Morvern’s trance-like detachment in the actress’ eyes. That je ne sais quoi which, in the film’s prologue, is reflected by the Christmas tree lights.

There is another scene of intimacy early in the film which takes place almost under the Chrtimas tree itself. Following a harrowing wide shot from a slightly higher angle (as many 2000s films would have it, the “surveillance camera” type of shot), one of blood and death, twinkling in red and green, a close-up reunites Morvern and her partner’s body—this time with her facing his back. The static observer-camera begins to tremble as it follows Morvern’s hand as she touches his shoulder, the focus moving playfully between her face and her hand. Amongst the deep shadows cast by the darkened interior, there is a jewel-like shine where tree lights illuminate the now-dried blood on the dead man’s wrist cuts. Reflections bounce off their pale skin, while the camera locks them in sensual close-ups, her hand a guide into the unknown land of a cold, but familiar body.

In the novel, Morvern switches off the tree lights on her first night out, way before disposing of the dead body and planning a trip to Spain with her girlfriend Lanna. In the film, though, they are kept on and play a crucial role. Of course, their festivity is soon reduced to colourful prop lights, but the decorated tree itself remains the only witness to the suicide which took place behind closed doors. The tree is a constant companion with its patterned flicker: each pause between light and darkness reveals a new facet of the flat and Morvern’s interaction with it. Yet, the repetitive clicking of ‘on’ and ‘off’ somehow makes a home out of that messy, grubby place.

The christmas tree as a prop light draws attention to itself. It is not just a light source. Because of the red and green of these lights, the film never looks gruesome, even if it portrays a man’s corpse lying in the doorway for days on end, or even when Morvern skips and hops over it to get her frozen pizza in the oven. The lit-up tree is a repository of a past that only partially belonged to her, a painful reminder and not a particularly useful light source—a symbol stripped of Christian connotations, to be built anew.

However, these Christmas lights are equally present even when embedded in the background. On one occasion, when Morvern is getting ready for a night out (as if nothing’s happened), they find a way to remind her. In the bedroom, she smudges her eye make-up, puts on red lipstick, and paints her nails facing the open door, and in order to check the integrity of the polish, she extends her right arm in front. With this gesture, what starts off as a mundane act of beauty prep turns into an ominous reminder of loss—while she holds her hand up, the red and green tones flush the dark wall in the blurry background. The camera lingers long enough to see the colours change with Morvern’s hand in the foreground, and then it suddenly switches its focal point—it is no longer the hand that is in focus, rather, it’s the lit-up wall. The whole bit only lasts a few seconds, but it does slow down time to a protracted, contemplative state, which shows how deeply the film is anchored in the ambivalence of loss: oscillating between freedom and the pain in grief.

The place of Yuletide in the film is subdued, represented only by the Christmas tree as metonymy. In the darkness of the short days, the flat’s interior becomes candy-coloured, somehow trippy, while Morvern’s sporadic visits accumulate wrappers, cigarette butts, and food leftovers, as an anti-Christmas feast. But we, too, keep the Christmas lights on for a few more days in the hope of prolonging… something; whether it be the holiday spirit, or a particular past we can’t let slip away just yet. It’s not clear what Morvern wants to keep, but her tree is there —as proof of life before death—however long she needs it for.

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