To what extent is a text limited by its author and how is this illustrated in Morvern Callar?

Anna Zehnpfund

In this essay, Morvern Callar is viewed through the lens of Roland Barthes' The Death of the Author. The film literalises Barthes death of the author in the death of James, with Zehnpfund exploring the degree to which this is the catalyst for the birth of the protagonist Morvern, and the limitations this death places on this birth.


In this essay I will investigate the narrative tension between Lynne Ramsay’s serene ways of showing Morvern’s feelings and the dramatic events of the plot (suicide, dismembering of a body) by discussing the ways in which meaning is conveyed through the use of symbols and language. By analysing key ideas such as dealing with death and grief and the meaning of friendship I will illustrate the cultural implications of Morvern Callar and subsequently identify the film’s place and role in contemporary British cinema. Finally I will analyse the ways in which Roland Barthes’ essay The Death of the Author is connected to the film by considering the consequences of the protagonist’s act of identity theft and identify it as an opportunity for her to begin a journey of self-realization.

Morvern uses her boyfriend’s suicide, which happens prior to the beginning of the film, as an onset to a journey of self-discovery. Although Morvern is unaware of it, her spontaneous and often naïve choices in the film determine her unintentional personal awakening, which is illustrated in a cinematic stream of consciousness. According to Alan Palmer a “fictional narrative is, in essence, the presentation of the mental functioning of the characters who inhabit the story world created by that narrative” (2007, 205). In this case, the story world is the world of Morvern Callar, who is “distant and perhaps totally unknowable” (Fitzgerald: 2010, 88). She seems to inhabit two worlds; the story world and her own dream like world, which appears to be her safe haven. Palmer further states that the audience enter “a story world primarily by using their knowledge of how to interpret other people's thought processes in the real world in order to try to follow the workings of characters' minds” (2007, 205). It proves difficult to use prior knowledge of the “real world” to analyse Morvern’s behaviour, as she seems to prefer her world to the real world. Additionally Lynne Ramsay’s elliptic storytelling seems to deliberately cut Morvern’s thought processes out of the narrative. Palmer concludes that if the reader or viewer is not able to follow the actions of the character or the workings of the character’s mind, they will “lose the plot” (2007, 205). Interestingly, Palmer’s point of “losing of the plot” might be the key to Morvern Callar, and helps the viewer to come to terms with the film.

The story is shown, not told and works by means of music, soundtrack, framing and light. The break with the traditional representation of narrative serves as a vehicle to mirror the fragmentation of experience of the individual. The lack of dialogue emphasises the importance of music, which is chosen to contrast or accentuate Morvern’s actions, as in her otherwise nihilistic world, the music she listens to serves as a connection to life through death. 

Amongst her Christmas presents from James are a portable tape player and a mix tape called “music for you”, which mainly functions as the soundtrack to the film and seems to dictate her actions by imposing James’ mental state on her. So although the protagonist features in almost every scene, her dead boyfriend seems to direct the narrative from beyond the grave. She constantly carries the tape player with her and through the headphones she isolates herself from the outer and therefore real world. In this case the “real world” is her life as a low -paid supermarket worker without opportunities to improve her situation. The real world also stands for James’ death, which she has to face eventually. Through her self-inflicted isolation she seems to pause her life, and hence the narrative. Lanna observes Morvern’s isolation and criticizes her for living “on another planet” (1.10.00). Lanna’s accusation in Spain is one of the rare occasions were the dialogue is in focus but even then Morvern remains passive. 

Language seems to complicate matters rather than clarify, which is underlined by Morvern’s repeated spelling of her name. On holidays Morvern and Lanna are approached by a group of men and instantly introduce themselves as Olga and Helga. They do not clarify the men’s wrong assumptions about their German origin and run away instead, laughing. On the one hand this incident highlights their light-hearted and childlike behaviour and on the other hand they clearly distance themselves from other British people hence from their own background. Interestingly it is the otherwise rather passive Morvern who initiates this role-play. This can be attributed to her unconscious transformation to an individual who seeks more in life than casual sex and parties and stands in contrast to Lanna, as Lanna later on returns to the resort and befriends a group of people from Leeds. Morvern does not seem to identify herself with her name, which can be seen when she randomly picks up a gold necklace and introduces herself according to the name on it: Jackie, which is a rather simple name compared to hers. The connection or rather separation of her self and her name becomes clear when she enters Spain, as “callar” is Spanish for “to be silent” or “to say nothing”. Taking this into account, the change of her name to Jackie gains more importance, as there is no such connotation to this name. 

One reoccurring element of the film are insects. Morvern seems to be fascinated by everything small and crawling. She examines a maggot in a carrot at work, seems to be fascinated by the water worms after James’ burial and waits for ants to run over her hands in Spain. When Lanna and Morvern are stranded in Spain, Lanna complains about insects biting her and says “This place is crawling!” (1.08.00), which calls attention to the friends’ differing attitudes as Morvern clearly finds joy in insects, whilst Lanna dislikes them. Similar to the music, the insects allow Morvern as well as the viewer to pause the narrative, as Morvern’s personal story is put on hold when she examines insects with the interest and patience of an entomologist. However, her enigmatic nature disguises whether she uses this time to reflect upon what happened or just to zone out and not think at all. 

In her essay Perverse Angle Liza Johnson investigates the criticism of the slow paced narrative and argues that the success of the film originates “precisely in using temporality to mobilize Morvern’s looks as actions” (2004, 4), for instance when Morvern examines a maggot’s struggle for existence. This scene urges to recognise the parallels between Morvern and her study objects, as both appear to be helpless and undirected. In another scene a group of boys play cruel games with an insect in Spain and Morvern merely observes this as a passive passer-by, unable to rescue the insect. This incident resembles her life, as she seemed to have merely observed whatever happened in her life up until the point she decided to explore Spain. After all, it is a cockroach that guides the way to a stranger’s hotel room and leads to Morvern’s sudden departure of the resort. Morvern permanently seeks contact to insects, and unlike humans they do not disappoint her. She can rely on their touch and she seems to find comfort in their existence, as perhaps she often feels like an insect herself, helpless and somewhat confined to her place and social standing in life. 

In the first sequence of the film, Morvern touches her dead boyfriend’s hand and remains in the same position as him. Her gaze precedes her hands and her red nails are the only particular feature to distinguish her from the corpse. She paints her red nails, which are frequently in focus, over and over again, seemingly despite the dead body as a sign that she is not going to change her plans to meet with Lanna. The camera captures her hands and red nails when, on the computer, she deletes her boyfriend’s name, which she replaces with hers. The red nails accompany her to bury James and the shot in which she washes her hands after the burial seems to bring an end to what happened at the flat. She cleanses her hands and leaves the dead in the Highlands, for now anyway. Morvern seems to feel the need to touch and examine everything and only once she has looked at things in detail and when possible felt them as well, they become part of her dream like world. Johnson says that “the film links the reach of her eyes to the reach of her hands, merging the senses of seeing and feeling in her efforts of contact and engagement” (2004, 4). This visual and manual examining seems to reassure and comfort her, although she seems to fail in her attempts to establish social interaction when she reaches out to touch but ends up staring at her own hands. In a childish baking session Lanna points out that Morvern’s hands are shaking (41.42), which leads to the assumption that her hands reflect her inner state and might also foreshadow her new restlessness, which is further explored in her outwardly aimless drive around Spain.

After Morvern and Lanna visit Lanna’s grandmother, Morvern returns on her own. She seems to seek communication, but instead prepares soup for the elderly lady. They do not speak much, which brings even more emphasis on the elderly lady’s gesture towards the undefined (29.40). A similar gesture is mimicked by the taxi driver in Spain, when Morvern points into a vague direction (1.04.00). These gestures might indicate Morvern’s first feelings of empowerment to change her destiny, or at least her destination. When Lanna asks, “Where are we going?” Morvern simply replies “somewhere beautiful” (1.04.02). Morvern does not have a precise answer, but her smile indicates that doing something out of her own will is all she needs to know. 

Johnson states that Morvern “is cut loose, destabilized and traumatized by the sudden removal of her structuring partnership”  (2007, 2). This is indicated by James’ Christmas presents, which become recurring objects throughout the film and they stand for the stability he offered Morvern. In Scotland and with Lanna, Morvern smokes one cigarette after another but when they are stranded in Spain, she is forced to stop as the lighter James left her brakes and becomes a symbol for Morvern’s loss. At this point, Morvern’s outward perception changes, as Lanna lies to her about having a lighter after emotionally and physically distancing herself from Morvern. Despite Lanna’s selfish and childish act Morvern does not seem to be resentful, however, she leaves Lanna behind to find something else in Spain and perhaps in her life. 

Corrigan claims that often the costumes function as the key to a character’s identity (2010, 58), which can be seen in Morvern’s gradual change of wardrobe implying her transformation. James’ leatherjacket gives Morvern the chance to literally hide in someone else’s skin until she feels comfortable enough to shed this skin and leave it behind, just like she attempts to leave Scotland behind. In the first scene the only outstanding colour is the red on her nails, which gradually spreads over her wardrobe. She wears a red hat on the way to work and a red jumper when baking with Lanna. In Spain, all she packs in her handbag is a red dress and some other essentials; the rest is left with Lanna and marked unimportant. The only purchase that Morvern makes with her carefully counted money is a summery flower dress, in different shades of red. This becomes important as that dress and its connotations of confidence and power determine the first impression when she meets the London publishers. Eventually she is dressed in red, which perhaps marks a new passage in her life. On her return to Scotland, all she packs is James’ music, which he ordered her to take and stores it in her big red suitcase. Her carrying the suitcase is the last thing the viewer sees of Morvern before she immerses in Spain’s flashing red disco lights. The colour red accompanies her on her journey and indicates her change. 

Morvern’s initial and conventional response to her boyfriend’s suicide is reporting the death. A stranger on the phone wishes her a “Merry Christmas” (6.25), which seems to trigger something in Morvern, as she decides against reporting the suicide. Although this could be attributed to her shock state, the fact that she meets her friend Lanna despite her boyfriend’s suicide indicates that she decided to ignore the death for now. She does not treat James’ dead body as a corpse, but rather like a person who is merely in the way and happens to be dead, she even apologises when taking money out of his pocket to finance her drinking at the pub later. Lanna asks about James, but Morvern conceals his suicide as Lanna, although sensing something is wrong, does not really seem to care about Morvern’s problems and offers drugs as a solution. Warner as well as Ramsay play on the ignorant and hedonistic lifestyle of the depicted generation, as perhaps Morvern’s actions can only take place in a culture, which is oblivious to the people in their community, happy to ignore personal problems as shown in Lanna’s disinterest.

It seems that Morvern’s immediate response to grief is drug use and partying, which is indicated in both encounters with death in the film. The first one is James’ suicide, after which she takes pills, probably ecstasy, with Lanna and continues drinking at a pub and later at a house rave, where she ends up in bed with Lanna and another man. When in Spain, Morvern meets a young man who has just lost his mother (58.04). He asks Morvern to stay and talk to him and whilst awkwardly sitting on the far corner of his bed, Morvern offers to tell him about her foster mother’s funeral. This short dialogue is enough to introduce a sex scene filled with laughter, tears and childlike behaviour. To Morvern, sex and grief seem interwoven, as Leggot claims to observe a “provocative connections between emotional trauma – death of loved ones – and sexual desire” (2008, 101).

Morvern’s reactions seem child-like, for example when she spins around after the act of burying James. She turns serious matters into games and attributes trivial things the same importance as serious affairs, for instance when she pretends to be looking for her boyfriend at the party whilst Lanna is looking for her fake blue nail, which emphasises her undeveloped character. This is also reflected in the friendship of the young women. Their bath not only underlines their intimacy and familiarity with each other, but also stresses their childish and naïve behaviour. 
In this bath Morvern is forced to look at Lanna when she says that James “is gone” and Lanna appears to distance herself from Morvern. What seems to divide them on the one hand is Morvern’s inability to articulate her feelings about her current situation, as she does not know it herself. On the other hand however, Lanna is indifferent to Morvern’s true feelings. Their friendship appears to be purely functional from Lanna’s perspective, which becomes clear when her relationship advice comes in the form of a pill. Lanna and Morvern seem to have bonded over class solidarity, they work in the same supermarket in the same small town and share common interests. What is depicted in their relationship is a false friendship in a realistic way. Morvern seems to become aware of this, after Lanna told her gilt-ridden that she had slept with James. Although in many strong friendships words are often unnecessary, their non-verbal exchanges are more likely plainly unconcerned as Lanna betrays Morvern’s friendship. Back in Scotland however, Morvern is not ready to give up on Lanna and returns to the pub and their old world voicing her disenchantment with life in Oban and asking Lanna to come to Spain. Morvern might have been driven by a nostalgic need, seeking comfort in bringing a part of her past to her new life, but Lanna dismisses her idea anyway and tells her to “stop dreaming”. Lanna’s reaction summarises the young working class’ bleak outlook, when she says, “it’s the same crapness everywhere” (1.20.00). In her essay Pornographic permutations Angela McRobbie claims that Morvern Callar “tells us something important about white, working-class young woman today. To anyone familiar with everyday life in the UK  this is instantly recognisable” (2009, 232). She describes how the depicted hedonism is part of the “social landscape” (McRobbie: 2009, 232) of the present, which perhaps makes Morvern Callar a realistic representation of present day life in certain areas of the UK. 

The fact that the narrative is delivered from a female perspective does not mean that it is liberated from male oppression, which is indicated by James’ direction of Morvern’s life from beyond the grave. This implies that Morvern is only able to break free from her situation due to her boyfriend’s and therefore male intellectual achievements. Morvern’s supervisor at work seems to watch her from his office and Lanna repeatedly calls him a “perv” (12.30) and at the pub, a man reproachfully asks Morvern why she did not visit him over the Christmas period (13.20). Morvern seems unable to deal with either situation and chooses to ignore these incidents, which are not further explained. 

The protagonist was brought up in a foster family and the fact that she is English rather than Scottish marks her as a foreigner in Oban. On the telephone to a stranger in one of the opening scenes she states that she is “not from here” (6.19.), which shows that although she has lived in Oban “for years” and built up a social life, she still feels like a stranger. This sense of alienation is conveyed throughout the film and underlined by her seeming detachment from herself. Morvern’s silence articulates her personal and cultural exile, as well as the feeling of displacement and isolation not only from herself, but also from society. 

The social isolation is illustrated in Morvern’s entirely unproblematic adoption of James’ novel. No one questions his disappearance, which seems to indicate that no one really cares. Warner says that his intention was to criticise the anonymity surrounding a hedonistic and lost generation (Dale: 2002, 65). This carelessness is continued in Morvern’s meeting with the publishers in Spain, where when asked about Spain her seemingly enigmatic reply is that “it is really beautiful in the quiet bits” and that she likes “the ants” (1.16.00). Morvern talks about herself, her real life in Oban and the publishers find it hilariously funny that Morvern apparently makes up to be working in a supermarket. To them a clear class distinction exists, which is so prominent that they cannot recognise Morvern’s statements as the truth, as it appears that someone like Morvern, the young lower-class supermarket worker, would not have the intellectual resources to write a £100.000 novel. The denial of Morvern speaking the truth is also implied when she says to Lanna that James “is gone. He’s dead” (23.3). Lanna not taking Morvern seriously restricts her on a private level and the publishers unknowingly undermining her abilities, offers a bleak outlook for the young British working-class, as they seem unable to escape their stereotyped image. 

Neville claims that there is a need to escape of the working class, “an escape not just from the UK itself but from a certain restrictive Britishness” (2011, 72). This Britishness is represented through the tourists who invade Spain and “never learn the local tongue” (Neville: 2011, 72). The tacky dress sense, the unintelligible speech and rude attitude of the “Brits abroad” bring Morvern, although probably unconsciously, to slowly separate herself from this Britishness. 
Warner as well as Ramsay present an ironic yet realistic picture of contemporary Britain. Whereas Morvern could be understood as a representation of a new young Scotland, which frees itself from the past and seizes opportunities when they present themselves, Lanna clearly stands for a whole generation that accepted their apparently unchangeable future.

Referring to James’ suicide and Morvern’s change of life, Sarah Neely claims that “Roland Barthes' predictions are realized, and the author is declared dead, but the text lives on, on page and screen” (2003, 239). Essentially, Roland Barthes criticises the importance of the author in relation to any text’s interpretation in his essay The Death of the Author. He urges for the recognition of the reader’s ability to analyse any text independent of the author, and argues that text and author (or “creator”) are unrelated. According to Barthes, James, as the author, entered “his own death” (1977, 145) by taking authorship over the novel he has written, as he attributes himself the greatest importance. He states that “the Author is thought to nourish the book  thinks, suffers, lives for it” (Barthes: 1977, 145), but “life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (Barthes: 1977, 145). James’ motifs for leaving the novel to Morvern are unknown. However, his suicide would probably have added a dramatic effect to the novel. “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text,” (Barthes: 1977, 147) means in James’ case that his fame is limited to none, as Morvern took over his identity and passed the novel as hers. Morvern Callar seems to emphasise and criticise the replaceability of the individual, yet confirms Barthes’ point, as it satirises the traditional author related criticism. Since Morvern denied James his post-mortem success, criticism relating to “society, history, psyche, liberty” (Barthes: 1977, 147) are all invalid, as Morvern instead of James would be analysed.  Barthes concludes that the author has to lose all significance in order for literature to gain meaning as the “reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination” (1977, 148), which is the reader. So just as the reader can only truly exist, when the author is dead, Morvern can only truly exist when she breaks free from the limits James embodies. James stands for Scotland, the low-paid supermarket job, Morvern’s hedonistic lifestyle and he also serves as a symbol for her intellectual inferiority. 
 Morvern’s journey could be identified as an unintentional search for identity, as she does not plan on breaking free from her old life, society and oppression. Yet she turns into an “opportunist anti-hero” (Fitzgerald: 2010, 87). However, the first notion of rebirth of this working-class female is only possible through her boyfriend’s intellectual achievement, a novel, which Morvern probably could never have written herself. This highlights the importance of the death of the author to the protagonist. The suicide of her boyfriend was taken as an opportunity but when in Spain, Morvern begins to feel that there is something more to life than just partying and going to work. She might not know what she is looking for, yet she begins her journey anyway. 

Overall, Morvern Callar is an intense but quiet reflection on taking opportunities presented in the life of a young working-class female. Morvern seizes her boyfriend’s death as a chance, and in hindsight she might realise that she took on James’ voice to act and live on her own terms, presumably for the first time. James left Morvern in charge of publishing his first novel and his last words come in written form. He asks Morvern to “Be brave.” Morvern does not read this as comforting last words, but understands them in their imperative meaning. She slowly takes her life into her own hands, yet this transformation is imposed by James’ death and accompanied by his musical body, guiding Morvern’s mental state. Neville states that “the film begins with darkness and suicide and ends with darkness and rebirth” (2011, 85), but it remains unclear whether or not Morvern was “reborn”. The lighting of the film suggests that Morvern has gone full circle: the flashing Christmas tree lights at the beginning symbolising James’ death are mimicked by the disco strobe lights in the end. Perhaps Morvern is back where she started. However, the colour of the flashing light has changed from a sterile white to a warm red, which signifies that something has changed for Morvern. The artificial light stands for the feeling of oppression and gloom, emphasizing isolation, whereas the red light symbolises Spain and its implications. However, the fact that the strobe lights are artificial too connects Morvern visually to the past. This connection is also highlighted by the presumably last song on James’ mix tape, Dedicated to the one I love by the Mamas and the Papas, which seems to be carefully chosen, perhaps as James’ attempt to somehow explain his suicide:
While I'm far away from you, my baby/ I know it's hard for you, my baby/
Because it's hard for me, my baby/  / "Life" can never be exactly like we want it to be/ I could be satisfied knowing you love me/ But there's one thing I want you to do especially for me.

Although the author is dead and Barthes prediction literally came true, in Morvern Callar this does not equal an abolition of the author’s limitation.  

4216 words including references


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Anna Zehnpfund


brightONLINE student literary journal

10 Aug 2012