Ramsay’s characters escape trauma through sensations – Elena Lazic

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 on the titular character caressing the body of her dead boyfriend; the scene is completely silent but for the hypnotic, lulling buzz of blinking Christmas lights. 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, making us feel like we’ve experienced something alongside her characters.

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. We simultaneously 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 no longer emphasises Joe’s breathing either; we hear the sound of his mother calling for him off-screen, instead. 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.)

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. In fact, in all of Ramsay’s films, the outside conditions of her characters’ lives have little bearing on style. Although the harshness of life during The Troubles does come through when James is called back to reality, Ratcatcher is nevertheless dream-like in its pacing and pastel tones, dovetailing nicely with James’ own quiet exploration — which sharply contrasts with Joe’s violent and desperate search for sensory escape. 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 style — leaving viewers no time to attribute significance to the images they see beyond their first, visceral impressions.


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