Lynne Ramsay’s features centre on characters dealing with trauma by losing themselves in sensations, not language. This is the seventh feature in our Special Issue on You Were Never Really Here.
In each of her four features, 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.
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Ramsay opens her second feature Morvern Callar on a similar scene, with Morvern taking refuge from the realm of significance — though the violence of the escape is much more shocking this time.
By concealing the dead man’s face, Ramsay emphasises the physical dimension of this encounter over its more abstract, sentimental significance: depersonalized, he is just an inert body, as if in a mortuary. A series of close-ups further isolate his body parts from one another, reducing him to flesh, skin, and bones. The juxtaposition of the dead man’s flesh with Morvern’s face aligns the viewer firmly with her perspective: we understand that Ramsay’s shots of the corpse reflect how Morvern herself perceives the body.
Morvern is touching and hugging the corpse man as though her lover was simply asleep. We expect that finding the man you love dead would make her sad, that hugging his corpse would be an insurmountable taboo, and not comforting in the least. But it’s as though the shock and horror of this discovery has led her to retreat into a world purely dictated by physical sensations: although he is dead, she still enjoys the proximity of his body — the physical sensation she gets from touching him.
Morvern Callar marks a step forward in Ramsay’s use of haptic visuality in the way it makes literal the dichotomy between sensation and language. The man who committed suicide was a novelist: someone who approached the world with words, attributing meaning to events beyond their physical and present-tense dimension; he was probably not a person who would let physical experience speak for itself. On his computer, he has left a novel, which he has dedicated to Morvern — a romantic gesture which fits with his last request that she send the book out to publishers. What could be more tragically romantic (from a certain male perspective) than to have the heartbroken girlfriend publish the book of her depressed boyfriend after his death, as though he and his love could live on through his words?
The dead man clearly had a rich interior life — an astute sense for extrapolation and meaning-making, for attributing romantic ideas to events. So anchored was he to the realm of significance — and so dissociated from that of sensations — that he thought the romantic tint of his death was strong enough to overcome the absolute horror (and frankly inhuman cruelty) of letting Morvern find his mutilated corpse.
Morvern, however, is much more pragmatic and down-to-earth than he was. If she had a romantic sensibility before, she definitely doesn’t now: she immediately disobeys his last requests, in an early example of Ramsay’s knack for disturbingly dark humour. Not only does she not read the novel that is dedicated to her, she sends it to publishers under her own name, with the hope of making money. Her materialistic concerns go hand in hand with her physical approach to the world. She is looking for easy ways to sustain herself and to seek out different physical experiences that will take her away from her trauma. With the money that her boyfriend had put aside for his own funeral, she buys herself a trip to Spain, Glasgow’s polar opposite in terms of weather and environment. Rather than burying the dead man, she keeps his body lying around the house as long as she can, then cuts it into pieces in her bath and buries the remains around the moors of Scotland. Morvern’s relentless pragmatism and her handling of the corpse go hand-in-hand: her dead lover’s body is a source of physical comfort until it is an inconvenience, never a locus of grief or sentimentality.
After the slight misfire that was We Need To Talk About Kevin, where Ramsay all but abandoned the haptic style that had made her so successful, she returned to it with a bang in You Were Never Really Here. Eerily, both this film and her debut Ratcatcher open with near-identical images. In Ratcatcher, we first see James twirling into some curtains until he is almost stuck. The slow-motion of the sequence detaches it from normal-paced reality, until the film returns to normal speed when James’ mother appears on screen telling him off — this is not what curtains are for.
James’ game directly mirrors the way Joe holds a plastic bag over his head at the beginning of You Were Never Really Here. Unlike James, Joe isn’t able to completely shut off the outside world because the bag is transparent. This failure is used for darkly comic effect later on in the film, when Joe is shown trying to suffocate himself again with a laundry bag hanging in the wardrobe of his mother’s home.
In all of her films, Ramsay highlights the way her characters’ pursuit of physical sensations appears completely irrational to the outside world, allowing us to both sympathise with their struggle and chuckle at their inadequacy. She pushes the comic contrast even further in this scene. Rather than reproducing the close-up on Joe’s breathing from the beginning of the film, which underlined the physical, visceral dimension of his action, Ramsay this time shows Joe’s entire body framed by the wardrobe. He doesn’t look like a man searching for a physical sensation, but like a grotesque maniac misusing a closet and a laundry bag that says “We <3 Our Customers”. The sound design doesn’t emphasise Joe’s breathing the way it did at the film’s beginning, but the sound of his mother calling for Joe off-screen. His mother’s voice highlights the contrast between Joe’s pursuit of wordless physical sensations, where his activity would be deemed utterly absurd. (You Were Never Really Here might indeed be Ramsay’s first successful attempt at comedy, after We Need To Talk About Kevin failed to strike most audiences as the darkly funny film Ramsay intended.)
Unlike James or Morvern, Joe isn’t exploring the realm of physical sensations anymore; instead he has worked out specific, tested methods for getting himself to feel rather than think. As such, You Were Never Really Here stands out from Ramsay’s other films in that Joe is completely self-aware in his pursuit of physical sensations. He must consciously enact rehearsed techniques because, unlike Ramsay’s previous characters, he cannot afford to escape from the world of language and meaning whenever he feels like it: he has to take care of his mother. This requires money, which mean Joe has to get a job, which further forces him to remain in the real world of language and out of the realm of sensations. For every job, he has to figure out what equipment he will use and how to get to his target — thinking and planning for the future, the very opposite of losing himself in physical sensation in the moment.
It is the painful irony of Joe’s life that, although he actively pursues violent physical sensations that are painful to him, he takes no visceral pleasure in his gruesome job as a contract killer. (There lies the difference between filmmakers who create visceral images, and Ramsay’ work: while many crime films contain visceral images, few are interested in the visceral experience of the characters themselves.) In fact, Joe hates hurting others, and Ramsay’s film purposefully minimizes the extremely unpleasant sensations that come with his ‘work.’ This is the clearest in two specific sequences of Joe ‘working’ — when he is seen entering the mansion of the paedophile ring, and when he breaks into the politician’s house later on in the film. In both instances, we do not see Joe actually take down the security guards: the action is out of frame; the most we see is Joe raise his hammer. The first invasion is also seen through a surveillance monitor, distancing the viewer further from the physical reality of the situation. In both sequences, Joe’s progress towards his ultimate target is portrayed like that of a character in a video game: entirely goal oriented.'There lies the difference between filmmakers who create visceral images, and Ramsay’ work: while many crime films contain visceral images, few are interested in the visceral experience of the characters themselves.'Click To Tweet
It is because Joe has to dedicate so much of his time to these jobs — which put him in the painful world of significance — that he goes for such violent, shocking, and painful methods of physical self-mutilation. With limited time, hurting himself allows him to get into the world of physical sensations much faster and much more efficiently than any other kind of physical stimulation. Joe’s violence against himself, much more graphically depicted than the violence he inflicts on others, is a form of escape from meaning and reality that is as intense as it is temporary.
This need for self-inflicted violence informs the aesthetic of the film more than the violence of Joe’s work does. This is the case in all of Ramsay’s films, where the outside conditions of her characters’ lives have little bearing on style. Although the harshness of life during the Troubles does come through in the moments where James is called back to reality, Ratcatcher is nevertheless dream-like in its pacing and pastel tones, dovetailing nicely with James’ own quiet exploration. Morvern Callar is chaotic and feverish, a manifestation of Morvern’s heartache and grief. She counters the desperation that she feels, and that her boyfriend seemed to have felt, with an intense and directionless desire to live — as illustrated by the extended sequence where she takes off for the Spanish desert on a whim, getting almost completely lost.
Because Joe’s obligations to his mother force him to remain in the world of language and meaning, that world is much more present in You Were Never Really Here than in Ramsay’s previous work. Consequently, the film features some of the most classical compositions of Ramsay’s filmography. Ramsay shows Joe at home with his mother, or at the office of the man giving him his next assignment, in classical shot-reverse shot editing and medium shots. But this tranquility doesn’t last: Joe’s need to escape into sensations any chance he gets means that the contrast between these classically-shot sequences and the more visceral moments in the film is much sharper here than in any of Ramsay’s other films.
This stylistic whiplash implies for Ramsay a completely different method for getting viewers to approach her film from a physical, haptic perspective. The haptic sensibility in Ramsay’s previous films relied heavily on the hypnotic effects of duration, requiring the patience of the viewer to enter a haptic consideration of the image. In a way, the films asked the viewer to take the time to see an image for more than its narrative function. By contrast, in You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay isn’t asking: she employs a much more violent approach to get viewers to feel rather than think. The film adopts a brutal visual and auditory style, with close-ups that are almost too close to be understood, unintelligible noise on the soundtrack, and a fast paced, contrapuntal editing leaving viewers no time to attribute significance to the images they see beyond their first, visceral impressions.
Yet as violent as these moments are, You Were Never Really Here is also Ramsay’s only film to truly attempt to reconcile the world of language and meaning with that of sensations. In the end, the film does give its traumatised protagonist a chance to painlessly return to the world of significance — to reality. Although we never usually see Joe take down the suits who work for the man who has kidnapped Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) — the girl he is tasked to find — we do see him trying to kill the men who have invaded his own home and killed his mother. The sequence is violent at first, with Joe unemotionally murdering one of the men and leaving the other crawling on the floor. But the film soon adopts a more haptic and irrational sensibility when, against all logic, Joe lies down next to the dying man, the two of them humming a soft song in unison and holding hands until the man passes away. For the first time in the film, Joe finds solace in a bodily sensation that isn’t violent, but compassionate and sweet. In that tender moment, both Joe and the dying man transcend the horror of this world of words, and take refuge in a shared embrace.'In YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, Ramsay employs a much more violent approach to get viewers to feel rather than think.'Click To Tweet
The final line of the film functions the same way. At a dinner restaurant, while Nina is in the bathroom, Joe fantasises about shooting himself in the head: he cannot bear the idea that Nina had to witness so much violence and kill her aggressor herself. Suicide would mean exiting the world of language and meaning altogether. In the most graphic moment of the entire film, we see Joe point a gun under his chin and pull the trigger: blood sprays all over the restaurant, on the waitress, on the wall, yet no one notices.
Only when Nina returns to the table do we realise that this suicide did not happen. In fact, perhaps the reason why she interrupts that fantasy is because she would care if Joe died. Despite all the horrors she has just lived through, she tells Joe “It’s a beautiful day.” Just like holding the hand of the man you just tried to murder, this is a deeply contradictory thing to say considering the the situation. But by saying it, Nina allows both Joe and herself to take solace in each other’s company, and find a reason to live. Joe acquisces: “Yeah, it is a beautiful day.”
A lot can be gleaned about a director’s outlook by looking at their films in comparison to each other. We’ve explored Joachim Trier’s entire filmography so far; took a side by side look at grief in Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper and Summer Hours; revisited two of Terence Davies’ previous features in our Special Issue on A Quiet Passion; and explored how Agnès Varda’s body of work led up to Faces Places.