Episode #58 of The Swampflix Podcast: Lynne Ramsay & Caché (2005)

Welcome to Episode #58 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our fifty-eighth episode, James & Brandon discuss all four feature films directed by the notoriously “uncompromising” Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay, including her most recent work, You Were Never Really Here (2018). James also makes Brandon watch Michael Haneke’s surveillance footage whodunnit Caché (2005) for the first time. Enjoy!

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-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

One of the most infamous scenes of onscreen cinematic violence is not actually as gratuitous in its visual depiction of brutality as you might think. Alfred Hitchcock’s staging of the shower stabbing in Psycho crams 78 camera setups and 52 individual cuts into 45 seconds of footage (which is where the documentary on the scene, 78/52, gets its name), bewildering its audience with a fractured visual narrative that makes us feel like we’re seeing more explicit violence than we are. Our minds fill in the gaps. Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell sustains this technique for the entire runtime of a feature-length crime narrative. You Were Never Really Here is being frequently compared to the violent third act catharsis of Taxi Driver, which is understandable considering its on-paper premise about a mentally strained brute singlehandedly taking down a child prostitution ring while simultaneously uncovering a larger political conspiracy. Ramsay’s approach to violence is much less explicit & blunt than what’s delivered in Taxi Driver, though, obscuring its emotional release by instead focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. It’s remarkably similar to the Psycho shower scene in that way, a connection acknowledged several times in the dialogue (thanks to serendipitous adlibbing from Dead Silence‘s Judith Roberts, who plays the would-be stand-in for Norman Bates’s mother in Ramsay’s film). If you’re looking for a prolonged echo of the bloody catharsis that concludes Taxi Driver you’re not likely to find it here, no matter how similar the two films might sound in concept.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a mercenary muscle who specializes in rescuing underage girls from child prostitution rings. When this grueling job overlaps with a larger web of political intrigue involving a governor, a senator, and one particular underage victim, he suddenly finds himself alone in the world, attempting to take down an Evil force much larger than one man could possibly handle. He attacks this problem with brute strength by way of his peculiar weapon of choice, a ball peen hammer, but any minor successes he can achieve only open his life to more violent and emotional chaos. This one-dude-vs-a-human-trafficking-network narrative is now common enough to be its own genre, if not only through Liam Neeson’s recent catalog alone. Where films like Taken or Brawl in Cell Block 99 often feel like macho power fantasies, though, You Were Never Really Here shows little to no interest in offering any such release. Our broken macho man anti-hero cannot successfully beat his problems to pulp. Instead of making him come across like a heroic badass, his horrific line of work leaves him weeping, codependent with his elderly mother, and in desperate need of a kind stranger to hold his hand or kiss his cheek. Physical, masculine strength is a debilitating force for Evil in this picture. Our protagonist is haunted by past childhood, wartime, and occupational atrocities that we only glimpse in flashes, but leave him effectively crippled. In crime thriller terms, this is less the stylized romance of Drive than it is the dispiriting grime of Good Time. It resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester. We linger on her characters’ emotional pain without being offered any clear catharsis.

It never feels right to discuss a Lynn Ramsay film in terms of plot, since so much of her storytelling is paired own to elemental indulgences in imagery & sound. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood enhances the film’s emotional discomfort with slightly off-rhythm guitars, violins, and percussions. Any visual information missing from the obscured bloody hammer attacks is supplanted with the menacing specificity of other off-kilter images: burning photographs, mouths sucking on thin plastic, bloody tissues piling on an office desk, sugar peeling off a crushed jellybean, etc. If the film draws an aesthetic comparison to another title in Ramsay’s (depressingly limited) filmography it’s Morvern Callar, her most strikingly grimy descent into emotional chaos to date. Not only does You Were Never Really Here share that film’s impossibly dark humor and (despite its absence of heavy Scottish accents) necessity for subtitles, it’s also at its core an editing room achievement in cinematic sight & sound. This may be Ramsay’s closest adherence to a genre structure to date, outweighing even the Bad Seed & Omen vibes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it’s deeply seated in the increasingly fractured mental space she’s been carving out as far back as Ratcatcher. The film’s security camera sequence is also her most impressively staged set piece outside the hellish house party that opens Morvern Callar, a very high bar to clear for any filmmaker. Whether you want to compare individual details from the film to Taken, Psycho, Taxi Driver, or any number of past stylized crime thrillers (Nocturama also comes to mind, based on the fractured imagery of its own security cam sequence), there’s no denying that this is pure Lynne Ramsay. The director obscures, subverts, deconstructs, and viciously tears apart a traditionally macho genre until its only viable comparison point is the furthest reaches of her own sublimely upsetting oeuvre.

-Brandon Ledet

Ratcatcher (1999)

Finally catching up with the rest of Lynne Ramsay’s (tragically thin) catalog, after years of appreciating her breakout feature We Need to Talk About Kevin as one of the best films of the 2010s, has revealed an aspect of her work I did not expect would define her aesthetic: grime. You can catch a glimpse of the immersive filth & despair central to Ramsay’s work in the hypnotic tomato festival opening of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it does not command the remainder of the picture in the way it does with her previous efforts. To that point, I’ve previously described her grief-rattled indie drama Morvern Callar as feeling “less like an original screenplay than it does like a feature adaptation of a crumpled-up Polaroid Ramsey found in a sewer.” To my naïve surprise, Ramsay’s debut film proved to be even grimier, sinking its yellowed teeth into the audience with a punishing immersion in dispiriting filth & despair to the point where the movie is explicitly about squalor. Ratcatcher is a nasty, unforgiving vision from a director who’s unafraid to lunge at her audience’s throat, a ferocious talent who’s been afforded too few opportunities to choke the life out of us & shove our face in the dirt. Weirdly enough, it’s also her most tender film to date, if not only for one brief gasp of lyricism that offers a rare fresh breath of escape.

Part of the reason the punishing grime of Ratchacher lands with such a convincing thud is that it’s used to detail the poverty-stricken lives of cinema’s most taboo targets: children. Telegraphing a kids-lyrically-transcending-their-grimy-environment genre that would eventually be solidified in titles like George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, American Honey, and The Florida Project, Ratchacher mostly immerses its narrative in a community of disenfranchised children running wild in a rundown 1970s Glasgow tenement. Kids are interchangeable and, to some degree, disposable in this dilapidated environment, which lacks proper utilities like plumbing, hot water, trash service, etc. With the housing facilities condemned and the community being gradually transported to a new, plastic-wrapped tenement, one family waits for their turn to be transported as their neighbors disappear and the trash piles up. A roving gang of bullies beat the trash piles with sticks, looking for rats to kill, and treat fellow children with the same brutish curiosity. Cheap beer & television serve as minor escapist pleasures as the central family waits for things to get better. Their lives continue to rot instead. Grief over an early fatal mistake plagues the house just as much as the rats & stench of trash. The childhood play that fills the remaining days before the big move resembles murderous violence more each second.

Ratcatcher was met with enthusiastic festival circuit accolades, but saw no theatrical distribution before being acquired by Criterion for home release. It’s difficult to imagine the film being a commercial success even if it did reach a wide audience, though, even if marketed as a nasty punk version of Stand by Me. There is one lyrical sequence of mind-blowing sci-fi absurdity that completely distorts its stuck-in-squalor existentialism, but for the most part the film is relentlessly dour in a way that’s antithetical to the possibility of being a crowd-pleaser. The Scottish accents are so thick they almost require subtitles. Children smear each other in filth and call each other “fucking bastards” with alarming ferociousness. The few trips outside the squalid tenement setting is just an endless parade of uncollected, festering trash. Ratcatcher is the ultimate submersion in Lynne Ramsay’s auteurist vision of a grimy, unforgiving world. She may have since found a more propulsive, narrative-focused method of dragging audiences through these grime-coated environments, but making us sit in the filth to watch children rot was a hell of a way to start her career. It’s not surprising that when other directors followed with their own children-in-poverty narratives like Beasts of the Southern Wild, they decided to lean into the lyricism of the Ratcatcher’s sole moment of sci-fi escapism. The film that surrounds that moment is downright suffocating, admirably so.

-Brandon Ledet

Morvern Callar (2002)

It’s a goddamn shame that in her two decades of directing features, Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay has only been able to secure financing for four directorial efforts. What’s more of a personal shame for me is that I haven’t yet made a point to watch all of her available works. I’m in love with the darkly amusing, surrealist nightmare of 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and her upcoming thriller You Were Never Really Here is my most anticipated film of 2018, but I’ve been slow to pull the trigger on her two earlier features until now, a grotesque oversight on my part. Speaking of grotesque, Ramsay’s precursor to We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the grimier, more sickly features I can remember seeing in a long while. Morvern Callar feels less like an original screenplay than it does like a feature film adaptation of a crumpled-up Polaroid Ramsay found in a sewer. Along with a fearless performance from indie movie mainstay Samantha Morton, Ramsay’s direction & scum-coated visual language capture a very specific phase of soul-crushing grief: the stage where you stumble in total shock, only emerging from drunken stupors long enough to pray for the release of death. The film is nowhere near as satisfying as We Need to Talk About Kevin on a technical or narrative level, but stylistically speaking it’s just as powerful & willing to lunge directly at the audience’s throat, a visual ferociousness I can’t help but appreciate.

Morton stars as the titular Morvern Callar, a twenty-something party animal who awakes from a blackout to discover her boyfriend dead from suicide. As Morvern ponders her plight in the sad glow of their shared apartment’s blinking Christmas lights, the movie threatens to sink into the slow, grainy quiet of a Kelly Reichardt film. That quiet, reflective gloom does not last long. Morvern’s response to her boyfriend’s death is much more akin to the behavior of a raccoon or an opossum than it is to a human being. She allows his body to rot on the floor for days before deciding to chop it up & bury it, keeping the funeral money he left behind for herself & selling his novel manuscript to a publisher under her own name. She uses the resulting cash flow to fill her days with hedonistic distractions: drugs, parties, vacations with her bestie, bad sex. The whole movie dwells in a kind of desperate attempt at fun! meant to hold her grief at bay, as she keeps the opening tragedy to herself as a secret. I’m not sure this nightmare vision of grief & desperate distraction is ever as strong as it is in the first party she attends almost immediately after discovering her boyfriend’s body. A disorienting mosaic of dancing, fire, broken glass, and drug-rotted sex, the earliest party sequence dunks the audience’s head in ice cold water as an open, honest threat about the meaningless debauchery to come. Morton barrels through it all with a nasty, heartbroken fervor and Ramsay matches her feral energy with an appropriately devastating sense of grime.

I can’t honestly say that Morvern Callar sustains the brutal intensity of that initial party sequence for its entire runtime, but it’s never dull or dispirited. The film plays like an pus-infected inversion of Eat, Pray, Love, with Morvern attempting to transform into a different person through self-indulgence & travel. Instead of “finding herself,” however, she’s more attempting to lose herself. For her part, Ramsay never loses track of the grief or desperation at the center of this quest, but she does often threaten to make it look cool. An incredible soundtrack stacked with some of the greatest pop acts of all time (Broadcast, Stereolab, Velvet Underground, Ween, etc.) combines with intensely colored lights & grimy punk energy to almost estimate the dressed-down chic of a fashion shoot or a music video. Ramsay’s sensibilities are too stomach-turning & sorrowful for Morvern Callar to fully tip in that that direction, though, and the movie ultimately comes across as incredibly sad. It’s the same odd balance she struck in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a tone she collaboratively establishes through heartbreaking performances from Samantha Morton & Tilda Swinton, respectively. I’m excited to see how that tonal tightrope is managed in the rest of her work, but saddened to know it won’t take much effort for me to fully find out.

-Brandon Ledet