With her critically exalted 1999 debut feature Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay (b. 1969) boldly announced herself as one of those rare artists able to bend the cinema to the shape of her own extraordinary vision. Although she has directed only two films since, each has confirmed Ramsay's reputation as an uncompromising filmmaker fascinated by the tremendous power of cinema to appeal directly to the senses and awaken new depths in our audio-visual imagination. Immersive and at times almost overwhelming, Ramsay's films abound with uncommon imagery arresting for its remarkable use of texture, composition, color, music and sound. Grounding Ramsay's sensorially rich cinema are the ultimately quite similar protagonists of her three films, each recovering with a strange assurance from a traumatic, violent death in which they are also directly, although enigmatically, implicated. The outsider protagonists of Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin are thus defined by a lasting communion with death, a bond with a realm beyond that seems to grant them a heightened awareness of the strangeness of the world around them, the uncanniness of the everyday. Much of the films' power lies in Ramsay's ability to capture and convey the drifting, dreamlike state of mind of her characters and the poetically associative logic that shapes their singular points of view.
Drawn first to photography, the Glasgow-born Ramsay entered England's prestigious National Film and Television School as a cinematographer before eventually switching to directing. Ramsay's equal talents in both disciplines were revealed in her accomplished 1996 graduation short Small Deaths which she shot and directed and which went on to win the Prix du Jury at that year's Cannes Film Festival. Ramsay's early shorts offer a playful yet sophisticated experimentation with the type of non-traditional composition and complexly expanded soundscapes that would become important signatures of her features. Indeed, these same qualities were taken to a bold extreme in Morvern Callar, Ramsay's mesmerizing and trance-like follow-up to Ratcatcher. Breaking the momentum earned by her critically acclaimed second feature, Ramsay suffered a frustrating series of career setbacks, with several tantalizingly close projects reported to have slipped away at the last moment. Yet eight years later her greatly anticipated Tilda Swinton vehicle We Need to Talk About Kevin immediately exceeded and even defied the great expectations weighing upon it, with Ramsay using her incredible skills as an audio-visual storyteller to create a controversial and ultimately devastating portrait of modern day motherhood. Poised to be one of the most hotly debated releases of 2011, We Need to Talk About Kevin confirms Ramsay's status as one of the exceptional stars of contemporary world cinema. – HG
The Harvard Film Archive is proud to welcome Lynne Ramsay for a showcase of her films, including the three acclaimed shorts that inaugurated her career. Please note that Lynne Ramsay's visit is to be confirmed. Check for updates below.
Special thanks: Dan Berger, Oscilloscope; Dean Otto, Walker Art Center.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay. With Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, William Eadie
UK/France 1999, 35mm, color, 94 min. Scottish English with English subtitles
Ramsay's inspired debut offers a bracing and direct response to the intertwined traditions of kitchen sink realism and miserabilist humanism so central to British cinema. Reimagining her childhood Glasgow from the point of view of an obdurate twelve-year-old boy, Ramsay embraced an offbeat, at moments unexpectedly whimsical, sense of magic realism to create a world simultaneously imbued with innocence and menacing threat and peopled by a cast of deeply sympathetic yet unsettlingly ambiguous characters. Ratcatcher 's interest in unconventional narrative is announced almost immediately by the unexpected twist that inverts its opening scene. Set during Scotland's notorious garbage strikes of the early 1970s, Ratcatcher uses the trash heaps and fetid canals of its Glasgow housing projects to describe a reversal of the natural order in which death and slow decay become transformative gravitational forces.
Preceded by Gasman (UK 1998, digital video, color, 15 min)
Directed by Lynne Ramsay. With Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott, Linda McGuire
UK/Canada 2002, 35mm, color, 97 min. Scottish English with English subtitles
A fascinating companion piece to Ratcatcher, Ramsay's second feature once again tracks the awakening of youthful imagination, now in the figure of a young woman who discovers an impulsive freedom and sense of peace after the sudden death of her tempestuous writer boyfriend. Ramsay's most abstract work to date, Morvern Callar is structured around a boldly elemental symmetry, striking stark contrasts between its vivid yet obscure characters and between the distant locations that trace a dream geography that explores the mist-enshrouded Scottish highlands and sunbaked Spanish pampas as complimentary expressions of the sublime. The keen attention to sound that remains a bold signature of Ramsay's films takes on new dimensions in Morvern Callar in which music is boldly used to create an acoustic subjectivity, rendering an intense first-person perspective that nevertheless keeps a poetic distance from the drifting eponymous heroine brilliantly played by Samantha Morton.
Preceded by Small Deaths (UK 1996, 35mm, color, 11 min)
Directed by Lynne Ramsay. With Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
US/UK 2011, 35mm, color, 112 min
An introspective family melodrama drawing from a long tradition stretching from Oedipus Rex to Mildred Pierce, Ramsay's latest film is, like these predecessors, ultimately a turbulent love story, a dark romance between a painfully self-conscious mother and her precocious son. Yanking up the tangled roots of the gnarled family tree, We Need to Talk About Kevin makes painfully clear the psychosexual burdens passed back and forth across generations while asking profoundly difficult questions about the crushing expectations that weigh relentlessly upon mothers. Tilda Swinton has justly received unanimous praise for her fearlessness portrayal of a woman whose life, career and worldview is exploded and deranged by her traumatic realization that her son is nothing less than a demon child, capable of unthinkable, monstrous acts. Equally impressive is Ramsay's transformation of upper middle class yuppie-dom into a menacing surface world, gleaming with sharp edges and innuendo. A brilliant visual storyteller, Ramsay unites the film's complex time structure by revealing a frightening symmetry between Swinton's past and present, legible in a series of mirrored images that use bold color and rhymed compositions to trace the tortured path of mistakes twice made. Shocking to the core, We Need to Talk About Kevin is ultimately a film of careful restraint, with Ramsay using uncanny sounds and off-screen space to wrap a dark malevolence around everyday objects and spaces.
Preceded by Kill the Day (UK 1996, 16mm, color, 18 min)