Lynne Ramsay’s features centre on characters dealing with trauma by losing themselves in sensations, not language. This is an excerpt from our ebook You Were Never Really Here: A Special Issue, which can be purchased here.
In each of her four feature films, Lynne Ramsay focuses on a powerless witness to events so traumatic that they can never be repaired or reversed. In her feature debut Ratcatcher, a young boy living in a Glasgow housing project during The Troubles accidentally drowns a child he is playing with. Morvern Callar, Ramsay’s sophomore film, opens in a gloomy apartment, completely silent but for the hypnotic, lulling buzz of blinking Christmas lights, on the titular character caressing the body of her dead boyfriend. In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton’s Eva Khatchadourian becomes numb after her sociopathic son murders his father, his sister, and a dozen schoolmates. And in Ramsay’s most recent film You Were Never Really Here, flashbacks reveal that contract killer Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is traumatised both from witnessing his father beat his mother as a child and from his experiences in the army and law enforcement.
These characters never get rid of their pain entirely. They never get back to ‘normal.’ Rather, Ramsay lets them explore the ways in which this pain changes them and their approach to the world around them. In a constant state of shock, her protagonists find themselves unable (or unwilling) to communicate their trauma via language: even if they did manage to put into words the full range of emotions they’re experiencing, spelling them out would make the tragedy they’ve gone through unbearably clear and inescapable. Ramsay’s protagonists thus choose, more or less consciously, to escape the realm of language and signification (where events have a meaning beside their physical dimension) by taking refuge in bodily sensations. They choose to feel, rather than to think.
Throughout her filmography (with the exception of We Need To Talk About Kevin, where the sense of physical sensations is much more subdued), Ramsay adopts a tactile aesthetic focused on conveying her characters’ physical experiences and environments. With close-ups on surfaces, long takes on moments of touch, and isolated sounds, she encourages the audience to feel the very sensations that are presented on screen, rather than simply to follow the film’s plot. This kind of sensation-oriented aesthetic is what film scholar Laura U. Marks called “haptic visuality”. Although other filmmakers, such as Claire Denis, often favour a haptic style, few are as consistent and innovative as Lynne Ramsay in crafting absorbing sensory experiences and making us feel like we’ve experienced something alongside her characters.
One scene in Ratcatcher perfectly encapsulates this move away from the traumatising world of language and into the reassuring one of physical sensations. In his kitchen, James grabs a shaker but does not salt his food; instead, he pours salt all over the table, running his fingers all over it, completely absorbed by the experience. It is this sensation that James is after, and that Ramsay wants us to experience with him.
For James, this activity isn’t a step forward in his own life, but a temporary escape from the hopeless path he is on. With close-ups, Ramsay makes the kitchen table take over the entirety of the screen: for the audience and for James, in this moment, this table covered in salt eclipses the larger scale tragedy of James’ life. From the moment of the accident on, James shuts out the world of language and signification — where he is ostracised for having killed a child — and lets his search for physical sensations guide him.
The rest of the article is available in the ebook You Were Never Really Here: A Special Issue which can be purchased here.