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Lynne Ramsay: The Generosity of Sensations

By: Alonso Díaz de la Vega @diazdelavega1

The films of Lynne Ramsay are one of impressions and sensitive experience. In theory her work has plots but they’re more like excuses to plunge herself and her audience into unseen spaces and invisible inner lives suggested by the material world. The image of a mouse flying towards the lunar surface while tied to a ballon in Ratcatcher (1999) is moving because it’s impossible. The reality where it hails from reminds us that it’s a fragile wish when the protagonist explains the mouse’s owner that it didn’t fly away to the moon. Actually it died, and it was his owner who killed it. This happens as an intense cleaning operation starts in Glasgow, where death and dirt abound. This contrast defines Ramsay’s cinema but one of her short films will help us understand even more fully her images and her influences.

Lynne Ramsay la generosidad de la sensación

Swimmer (2012) is probably the Scottish director’s most dreamlike film. In it, a boy swims in a canal surrounded by grass and as he progresses he meets several characters from British films of the 60’s. Actor Tom Courtenay’s voice can be heard on clips from John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963) and Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). There are also references to Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) which, along with the other films, show a fascination for the Free Cinema and a coinciding interest for childhood. The canal and the swimming are typical elements in Ramsay’s work, perhaps as much as scenes set in bathtubs. There, the siege of reality seems to stop for a while, at least. Swimmer is in many ways a trip through the director’s consciousness and an essential tool that will help us understand the rest of her work.

Ratcatcher itself contains the aforementioned elements and at the same time it synthesizes short films like Small Deaths (1996), Gasman (1998) and Kill the Day (2000), which approach the lives of the working class in Glasgow, but not to clear them out for us or to solve their issues, but rather to take us into their world through life-changing details. The waning gaze of a cow as it dies or the holding hands of a couple of little girls suggest much more than death or tenderness: they’re ironies yet to be revealed, forebodings of what’s to come. The drowning of a child in a canal in Ratcatcher becomes the fantasy of another, or perhaps the fantasy is that everything sorts itself out in the real world. We don’t know. Mystery is inevitable in Ramsay’s films, and that sets her apart from her predecessors of the Free Cinema. That movement sought to capture the working-class life in order to denounce the social contract, but Ramsay represents the poor Scots while trying to find in their silences and their trivialities the experiences of everyone else.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, dir. Lynne Ramsay)

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, dir. Lynne Ramsay)

Even though her second feature film, Morvern Callar (2002), promises a melodramatic plot, Ramsay’s style keeps the clichés at bay and represents with her style the story of a girl who claims to have written her boyfriend’s novel after his suicide. There’s a scene in which she cuts up his corpse and we only realize because of the blood that squirts on her skin. Like Robert Bresson, Ramsay prefers to watch the details and ignore exaggerations. She does the same with the even more intense plots of We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and You Were Never Really Here (2017). The former tells of the fears and consequences facing the mother of a psychopath; the latter is the story of a former FBI agent who rescues kidnapped children.

These two films well could have been a breaking point in Ramsay’s aesthetic, since both of them are large productions starred by Tilda Swinton and Joaquin Phoenix. Nevertheless, Ramsay remains faithful to her images of drowning, her unusual compositions and her pop songs from the 60’s. Once again, the pleasure in her films is not in telling but in getting close. Perhaps there is no more generous intention than that in a filmmaker.